Bad Hootch

Despite Prohibition, perhaps a few champagne corks were popped for the January 15, 1927, edition of the New Yorker. This is Issue # 100.

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January 15, 1927–Issue # 100. The cover art by Constantin Alajalov.

Prohibition was on the minds of the editors of the issue, which featured a highly critical piece by Morris Markey (“A Reporter at Large”) on the hysteria surrounding the government’s attempt to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol. The editors of “The Talk of the Town” also made this observation:

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Before we get more into Markey’s piece, a little background is in order. In an article for Time magazine (Jan. 14, 2015) Lily Rothman writes that for years prior to Prohibition industrial alcohol had been “denatured” by adding toxic or unappetizing chemicals to it. This was done so folks couldn’t escape beverage taxes by drinking commercial-use alcohol instead — but it was still possible to re-purify the liquid so that it could be consumed.

HOME CHEMISTRY…A bootlegger at work in the 1920s. (oldmagazinearticles.com)

Rothman cites a Time article from Jan. 10, 1927, which reported that Prohibition forces in the government were introducing a new formula that year for denaturing industrial-grade alcohol that doubled the poisonous content: “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol.” The article noted that “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.”

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Warning label from the 1920s (vickyloebel.com)

Although some opposed the practice as legalized murder, Rothman cites Seymour M. Lowman, who as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (1927-33) was in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Lowman told citizens that those on the fringes of society who continued to drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

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DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK…1920s label for bootleg moonshine. (googleuk)

Thousands died from consuming poisoned alcohol. Rothman writes that 33 people died in Manhattan alone in a three-day period in 1928, mostly from drinking wood alcohol.

Markey’s stance in his New Yorker article is somewhat unique, if not cold-hearted. Instead of taking the government to task for the practice, he assured his well-heeled readers that they had nothing to fear as long as they procured their alcohol from reputable bootleggers at top prices. Markey seemed to care not at all for the poor “slum-dwellers” who died from consuming the cheap stuff:

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If anything, Markey’s sympathies seemed to lie with those who had to drink the safe, albeit diluted hootch. He explained how four bottles of bootleg Scotch could be fashioned from a single bottle of the real deal:

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And if you had money, there was no need to fear death from drink…

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…that is, unless you were careless:

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* * *

Helena Huntington Smith wrote a profile on the actor Adolphe Menjou, described by IMDB as Hollywood’s epitome of suave and debonair style: “Known for his knavish, continental charm and sartorial opulence, Menjou, complete with trademark waxy black mustache, evolved into one of Hollywood’s most distinguished of artists and fashion plates, a tailor-made scene-stealer.” Interestingly, Menjou was born in Pittsburgh, and not in France as many a fan assumed (his father, however, was a French émigré).

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Glass lantern advertising slide for Menjou’s 1927 silent film A Gentleman of Paris.

In other items, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) once again set his sights on the city’s changing skyline. He began with the new General Motors building at Columbus Circle:

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He was thrilled by the push-button automation of the building’s elevators:

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The General Motors building, left, as it originally appeared on Columbus Circle. It was designed by Shreve & Lamb, who would soon go on to design the Empire State Building. At right, the building became known as the Newsweek Building. (Drawing by J. W. Golinkin in Towers of Manhattan, 1928, and photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

If George Chappell thought the General Motors building had some issues in 1927, he should see it today, wrapped in tacky reflecting glass and renamed 3 Columbus Circle:

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WHY? WHY ON EARTH?

Elsewhere, Chappell was agog at Sloan & Robertson’s massive Graybar Building:

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Sloan & Robertson’s Graybar Building at 420 Lexington. (history.graybar.com)

And to close, this ad on the back page for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the company’s famous Atlantic City sign. Note the point of pride: There are 13,000 lamps in the sign, but four times that many Chesterfields are smoked every minute…koff…koff…

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Next Time…Upstairs, Downstairs…

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The Sporting Life

One of the strangest things about the fall 1926 issues of The New Yorker is the almost complete absence of baseball coverage, even though the 1926 Yankees had turned things around from an abysmal 1925 season and found themselves in the 1926 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

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November 20, 1926 cover by Andre De Schaub.

The Yankee’s star Babe Ruth had recovered his health from the previous season and played exceptional all-around baseball in 1926, even setting a World Series record of three homers in the fourth game. According to (now disputed) newspaper reports at the time, Ruth had promised a sickly boy named Johnny Sylvester that he would hit a home run for him in Game 4. The papers reported that after Ruth’s three-homers, the boy’s condition miraculously improved.

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SNUBBED…Babe Ruth knocked in three homers during Game 4 of the exciting 1926 World Series, an event completely ignored by the football-crazed New Yorker. (Bronx Banter)

The Yankees would lose the series in seven games (it would be the first of the Cardinals’ 11 WS championships), but nevertheless the season represented a dramatic turnaround for the team.

But The New Yorker was obsessed with college football, mostly Ivy League contests and the exploits of Knute Rockne and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

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Johan Bull provided lively illustrations for Tunis’s columns.

Sportswriter John Tunis cranked out lengthy accounts of football games, including the Princeton-Yale contest covered in the Nov. 20, 1926 issue.

The same issue also included an article by Herbert Reed, who wrote about Notre Dame’s victory over Army at Yankee Stadium and proclaimed the Fighting Irish to be the greatest team in the country.

The New Yorker caught the Notre Dame bug the previous season. When attendance dropped at Yankee Stadium due to an ailing Babe Ruth and his team’s losing record, college football took center stage at the stadium that fall, with the fiercely competitive Notre Dame–Army game the marquee match-up (the rivals would continue their annual meeting at Yankee Stadium until 1947).

The “other” game–professional football–was still in its infancy, and the editors of “The Talk of Town” made it clear that the college atmosphere was more to their liking. It is interesting that even today when fans compare college to pro football, the same observations are made:

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STAR ATTRACTION…After playing his first professional season with the Chicago Bears, in 1926 Red Grange joined the short-lived New York Yankees professional football team. (ourgame.mlb)

As for other sports, The New Yorker also offered extensive coverage of tennis, golf, and polo in its issues. And there would also be rowing, boat and auto racing, and steeplechase events such as National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden. An advertisement promoting that event appeared on the inside back cover:

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The editors of “Talk of the Town” continued their sad refrain on the city’s changing landscape, the wrecking ball this visiting Gramercy Park:

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The Stanford White house referred to in “The Talk of the Town.”
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The Dining Room ceiling in the Stanford White House came from a 16th century chapel in Florence.
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Gramercy Park Hotel on the site today. (All 3 photos: Daytonian in Manhattan)

And to close, this terrific advertisment for the Greenwich Village Inn, illustrated by Hans Flato:

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Next Time: Holiday Shopping…

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The Cotton Club & Other Distractions

Of all the nightclubs made famous in the Roaring Twenties, none were quite so famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club. Frequented by many celebrities, the club was a whites-only establishment even though it featured many of the most popular black entertainers of the day including Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

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November 13, 1926, Issue # 91, cover by Julian de Miskey.

So leave it to The New Yorker, and specifically its nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, to take a blasé view of the famed hot spot. Perhaps she was just tired, having already visited three other nightclubs that evening–the Montmartre, the Yacht Club, and Connie’s Inn–before seeking out the Cotton Club:

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Performers on stage at Connie’s Inn, Harlem, 1920s. (New York Public Library)
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Duke Ellington and dancers at the Cotton Club in the late 1920s. (Untapped-Cities)
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Program from the 1920s designed to attract white patrons to the Cotton Club. (Women of the Harlem Renaissance)

* * *

“The Talk of the Town” noted the passing of rodeo star and sharp-shooter Annie Oakley. Next time you get a free ticket with a hole punched in it, you’ll know what to call it:

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If nightclubs weren’t your thing, there were plenty of movie theatres screening the latest offerings from Tinseltown. The opening pages of the magazine featured this advertisement for the new 3,664-seat Paramount Theatre, located at 43rd Street and Broadway in the Times Square.

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It’s a reminder that Paramount, a venerable old Hollywood studio (which these days is owned by Viacom) had its origins in New York as the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Founded in 1916, Famous Players-Lasky was primarily located at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens (after 1920). It would eventually become Paramount Pictures and relocate to Hollywood in 1932.

The Paramount Theatre was closed in 1964. Sadly, the interior was gutted and converted to office and retail use. Here are a couple of interior shots of the theatre’s Grand Hall as it appeared following its opening:

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NOT YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…Grand Hall of the Paramount Theatre, featuring imported Italian marble columns. (American Theatre Architecture Archive)

The theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest and most admired theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company, was removed and later installed in a convention hall in Wichita, Kansas.

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Keyboard array of the Paramount Theatre’s huge pipe organ, one of the largest theatre organs ever built by the Wurlitzer company. (nycago)

Paramount would open theatres around the country (in the chain of Publix Theatres), and a number of them survive today. The original Paramount Building in New York is still there, but all that’s left of the theatre is the marquee.

The marquee in 1927:

Copy of New York's Paramount Theater - 1930s

And today:

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Next Time: The Sporting Life…

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A Changing Sky Line

Although architectural criticism was practiced by a rare few in 1926 (and even fewer today), it was prominent in the pages of The New Yorker. Lewis Mumford famously served as the magazine’s critic from the 1930s to the 1950s, and longtime critic Paul Goldberger took over the magazine’s “Sky Line” column from the mid-90s to 2011.

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October 16, 1926 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

In 1926 George S. Chappell served the magazine as architecture critic under the pseudonym “T-Square.” A rare combination of architect, parodist, and journalist, he was perhaps best known for his travel series parody published under the pseudonym “Walter E. Traprock.”

In the Oct. 16, 1926 issue, Chappell took critical aim at the “cheap architecture” sprouting amidst the clamor of a rapidly changing landscape…

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…and referred to the fenestration (the arrangement of windows and doors) of the Murray Hill Building as “atrocious.”

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The Murray Hill Building. (Museum of the City of New York)
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The ground-floor show windows of Murray Hill feature free-hand carvings depicting people in various trades. (Wikimapia)

Chappell then set his sights on “another disappointment,” the Delmonico Building, which he said possessed “the grace of an overgrown grain elevator…”

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Part of Chappell’s disgust is no doubt attributable to the fact that the beloved old Delmonico Building at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street (left, photo from The Brickbuilder, 1899), was razed in 1925 and replaced by the “overgrown grain elevator” at right. (Google Maps screen image)

He then moves on to the landmark French Building with its “dreary factory windows”…

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The French Building. (flickr/Wally Gobetz)
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The 5th Avenue entrance to the French Building. (omnidisc)

So what did Chappell prefer? Read on…

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Aeolian Hall on Fifth Avenue, constructed on a site formerly occupied by the William Rockefeller mansion. (Museum of the City of New York)
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Detail of the upper stories of the building. (Daytonian in Manhattan)
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Cartier’s clock on Fifth Avenue (Pinterest)

Despite Chappell’s oft disapproving gaze, in the end he (along with other editors and writers at The New Yorker) could not help but be caught up in the thrill of one of the city’s grandest building booms…

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Other items of note in the Oct. 16 issue, this ad promoting the first-ever “New Yorker book,” a collection of “Profiles” by Waldo Frank, who wrote under the pen name “Search-light”…

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And finally this picturesque ad for Marmon automobiles. The company was defunct by 1933.

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Next time: A Royal Flush…

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On the Air

As much as they affected a refined disinterest in the latest fads, The New Yorker editors were nevertheless impressed by the many electronic innovations in the 1920s consumer market. Although electricity in cities had been around for awhile, inventions to exploit this new resource would come into their own in the Jazz Age with the advent of mass-produced electrical appliances (refrigerators, toasters etc.).

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Sept. 18, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds

So when the 1926 Radio World’s Fair opened at Madison Square Garden, the magazine was there to report on its many marvels in the Sept. 18 issue:

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IF ONLY THEY HAD SPOTIFY…Teens tuning in, mid 1920s.

Although New York’s radio fair was doubtless the largest (akin to today’s annual Consumer Electronics Show), similar fairs were held in other major cities where broadcast radio was taking hold.

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Promotional image for Edison Radio from the 1926 New York Radio World’s Fair. (artdecoblog.com)

…and for comparison, an image from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:

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(CES)

To give you an idea of some of the stranger innovations in the world of 1920s radio, here is an image scanned from the Oct. 16, 1926 issue of Radio World magazine demonstrating the wonders of a wearable cage antenna, which I believe was intended for use by the wearer for making wireless broadcasts…

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…and a detail of an advertisement from the same issue depicting a typical household radio for the time:

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Before tuning in for the first time, the radio’s owner needed to string a 100-foot outside aerial. Until 1927, when owners could plug their radios into electric sockets, radios required two types of batteries—a storage battery that required recharging every two weeks and a set of dry-cell batteries that needed to be replaced about every three weeks.

If all this looks crude, remember that in September 1926 broadcast radio was less than six years old. But it was big year for radio, with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) establishing a network of stations that distributed daily programs. Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) would establish a rival network in 1928.

In other items, the magazine offered a lengthy profile on tennis legend Bill Tilden, and later in the sports section described his Davis Cup defeat to Frenchman René Lacoste.

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Tennis rivals Bill Tilden and René Lacoste meet in Philadelphia, 1927. (greensleevestoaground.)
Tilden is often considered one of the greatest tennis players of all time. However, The New Yorker “Profile” described him as a reluctant star with artistic ambitions…
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…who distained the life of a sports hero…
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Samuel Merwin, referred to above, was a playwright and novelist.
Tilden was the world’s number one player for six years (1920-1925). He won 14 Major singles titles including ten Grand Slams. He also won a record seven US Open titles.
There is a sad footnote to Tilden’s career, however. Twenty years after The New Yorker profile, Tilden would be arrested for soliciting sex from an underage male, an offense he would arrested for again three years later, in 1949. He was subsequently shunned by the tennis and Hollywood world, although his old friend Charlie Chaplin allowed Tilden to use his private court for lessons, which helped him financially as he dealt with legal and financial problems.
* * *
The magazine editors continued to watch the rapidly changing skyline of the city, as beloved old buildings were demolished to make way for new skyscrapers. This time it was the old Park Avenue Hotel:
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The editors of “Talk of the Town” fondly recalled the time when the hotel, with its spacious courtyard of flowers and fountains, attracted “almost every dinner party of consequence in New York.”
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This photo of the old Park Avenue Hotel was taken in 1890, only two years after Fourth Avenue was renamed Park Avenue. Constructed in 1877, the hotel was originally called Stewart’s Hotel for Working Women, designed to provide safe housing for the influx of single working women pouring into New York City. The name didn’t last long: the hotel was opened in April 1878, closed in May and reopened in June as the Park Avenue Hotel. It was razed in 1927. (Ephemeral New York)

The same site today:

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(Ephemeral New York)

The nearby Murray Hill Hotel mentioned in the article would last another 20 years, falling to the wrecking ball in 1947:

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The Murray Hill Hotel, built in 1884, would outlive the Park Avenue Hotel by 20 years, falling to a wrecking ball in 1947. (Library of Congress)
 Next Time: Fight Night in Philly…
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