To the Air

New Yorker writers in the 1920s by and large displayed a resistance to enthusiasm when they looked around at the changing the world, but when it came to advancements in aviation, they tended to drop the casual pose and get all dreamy-eyed.

June 2, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

Such was the case with even a clear-headed writer like Morris Markey, who in his “A Reporter at Large” column looked at our progress in aviation. Public interest in air travel grew dramatically after Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 Atlantic crossing, as did the expansion of air mail and passenger service and the growth of private plane ownership. As Markey noted in this opening paragraph, for all the advances in American aviation, the Europeans were well ahead in establishing regular passenger service, as it has become “commonplace”:

FORERUNNER…In 1920s the Boeing Model 40 served as a U.S. mail plane. The single-engined biplane was also the first aircraft built by the Boeing company to carry passengers. Note the pilot was still seated in the open air, behind the passenger compartment. Many early pilots were unhappy when the next generation of planes forced them into an enclosed cockpit. (Boeing)

To get some sense of European (and specifically German) aviation superiority, look no further than the Dornier Do-X, a massive seaplane developed by the Germans in the mid-1920s that began regular passenger service in July 1929. While America’s biggest planes could carry 12 to 18 passengers, the spacious and luxurious Dornier Do-X could comfortably seat 70 to 100 passengers and included a dining salon, smoking lounge and wet bar. A few months after its first flight the Do-X broke a world record by carrying 169 passengers—astonishing when one considers only 25 years had passed since the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk.

BEHEMOTH…169 people flew aboard the Dornier Do-X on October 21, 1929. The plane’s hull was made of aluminum, but the sides were made of heavy duty linen cloth coated with aluminum paint. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
MAKING HISTORY…Excited passengers—169 of them—await take-off on October 21, 1929. Powered by a dozen engines, take-off weight for the Do-X was more than 61 tons. Note the crew members atop the craft manually turning the propellers—all 12 of them—to circulate the oil in the engines prior to take-off. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
LEGROOM NOT OPTIONAL…The dining salon (left) and a passenger compartment in the Dornier Do-X. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
MODEST, BUT NICE…Over in America, the 1928 Boeing Model 80 carried passengers in a spacious cabin appointed with leather upholstery, reading lamps, forced-air ventilation, and hot and cold running water. The first version carried 12 people, and it was followed by a larger, 18-passenger Model 80A, which made its first flight on Sept. 12, 1929. The plane’s fuselage was made of welded-steel tubing covered with fabric, and its wooden wingtips were removable so the airplane could fit into the primitive hangars along its route. (Boeing)
Interior of the Boeing Model 80. Ellen Church, a registered nurse, convinced Boeing managers that women could work as stewards, so nurses serving aboard the Model 80A became aviation’s first female flight attendants. (Boeing)

Markey noted in his article the growing interest in commuter flights among business executives. What seemed like a high demand to Markey was an average of three commuter flights a day.

Markey also lamented New York’s lag in building up passenger service, especially when air travel was growing leaps and bounds in the Midwest and West, and especially in rival Chicago:

THERE HE GOES…Harry Guggenheim and Charles Lindbergh step off a Western Air Express Fokker F-10 in 1928. Diplomat, publisher and philanthropist, Guggenheim provided funding to mail carrier Western Air Express in 1927 in an effort to create a “model airline” that was safe, dependable and economically feasible. By 1930 Western was the nation’s largest airline. It was short-lived, however; in 1930 Postmaster General William Folger Brown forced it to merge with Transcontinental Air Transport, creating Transcontinental and Western Airlines, or TWA. (Boston Public Library)
NO TSA LINES HERE…Passengers board a Western Air Express Fokker F-10 in the late 1920s. The Fokker F-10 was called “The Queen of the Model Airline,” but it fell out of favor after a much-publicized March 31, 1931 crash in Kansas that killed eight people, including football coaching legend Knute Rockne. (birthofaviation.org)
NO FRILLS…Passenger compartment of a Fokker F-10. (birthofaviation.org)
HERE’S LUCY…Actress Lucille Ball was all smiles after a flight on a Western Air Express Fokker F-10. (birthofaviation.org)

Markey also noted the modest number of planes in private hands, but expected private ownership to increase dramatically in the coming months:

TIN GOOSE…Henry Ford briefly got into the aviation business with his company’s popular Ford Trimotor. Dubbed the “Tin Goose,” it was the first all-metal, multi-engine transport in the United States and the first plane designed primarily to carry passengers (12) rather than mail. It was the  first plane to be used for transcontinental passenger service, as well as the first plane to fly over the South Pole. The Great Depression would end the plane’s short but successful run—a total of 199 were produced. (birthofaviation.org)
BE YOUR OWN LINDBERGH…Looking for your own set of wings? The 1929 Cessna Model AW was just around the corner. (airpigz.squarespace.com)

Although Markey lamented the slow growth of New York aviation, he was nevertheless dazzled by the “ships” taking to the skies at Curtiss Field.

Jumping ahead a couple of years, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno offered this view of passenger flight, the passengers in this case a bunch of silly toffs (April 12, 1930).

And back to the June 2, 1928 issue, we find this ad for Rolls Royce that offered a vision of a future airliner—in the year 1948. Since the artist had no clue what the future would hold, he conjured up this contraption that looked like a streamlined ark attached to a huge zeppelin.

And just for kicks (and contrast), this ad for Lincoln was all about tradition, except for the nice typographical flourish on the letter “L” —a definite nod to Bauhaus style.

And if you thought novelty in our gadgets is a fairly recent thing, check out these portable Kodak cameras that were available in five colors. From automobiles to typewriters, manufacturers in the 1920s were discovering that color distinguished their products and even drove demand (click image to enlarge).

Advertisers could also create demand by appealing to readers’ cravings for status. The following ad for a Lord and Burnham greenhouse is an especially egregious example of the use of status shaming to sell a product. Note how the foursome in the illustration, presumably all greenhouse owners, look at the man without a greenhouse as though he’s a child molester or worse.

Before Green Eggs and Ham

In 1928 ads for Flit insecticide began to appear in the New Yorker, illustrated by none other than Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. This is the first Flit ad to appear in the magazine, in the June 2, 1928 issue:

In the 1920s people didn’t seem too concerned about the toxicity of the products they used (for example, we’ve seen Lysol used as a feminine douche). Although the Flit ads aimed to be humorous, it still seems odd to imply that one might gargle with the insecticide. As we shall see, subsequent Flit ads will show the product being sprayed indiscriminately over food, children, pets etc.

Taking a Shot at the Babe

The cartoonist I. Klein had some fun with the hyperbole often attached to the athletic feats of the Sultan of Swat:

And finally, Peter Arno looked at murder among the upper classes:

Next Time: The Russians Are Coming…

 

 

 

 

After Hours

Broadway shows were a popular nightlife diversion for New York’s upper middle-class, but plays and musicals were only part of an evening’s entertainment. The city’s “after theatre” clubs beckoned those who enjoyed an evening of dance with the Astaires or a light comedy with Lunt and Fontanne, but believed the night was still young.

May 5, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

And who better to chronicle the late night revelry than Lois Long, who through her “Tables For Two” column (signed “Lipstick”) was a leading voice of after hours Manhattan and a nightly presence in its various clubs and speakeasies. Longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (Here at the New Yorker) observed that Long, who joined the New Yorker in 1925, “had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play — a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”

In May 1928 Long had been married for about nine months to colleague and cartoonist Peter Arno, who was also a regular fixture of the nightclub scene. But in Long’s column for May 5, 1928, one can detect a bit of weariness setting in, the 27-year-old sensing the next generation didn’t know how to have a good time.

And it didn’t help that the younger people were dancing to “canned music,” what with the spread of broadcast radio and improvements in phonograph records…

LIPSTICK WAS A FAN of the Paul Specht Orchestra, seen here in 1928. (YouTube)
BUT NOT A FAN of those darn kids who preferred records to live music, and didn’t know how to party at the clubs. (Pinterest)

For those on the wilder side, Lois Long recommended a number of after-hours entertainments, including Texas Guinan’s latest all-night club, Salon Royal, and its snake-charming hootch dancer.

WHOOPEE was the order of the day at Texas Guinan’s Salon Royal on West 58th Street, now refurbished as the 6 Columbus Hotel. Guinan was well known to New Yorker writers and editors and was a frequent guest of the numerous parties hosted by Harold Ross and Jane Grant in their Hell’s Kitchen brownstone. (texasguinan.blogspot)
A FAVORITE HAUNT…A bartender at the 21 Club speakeasy in New York, as photographed by Margaret Bourke-White circa 1930. The 21 was Lois Long’s favorite watering hole. (Getty)

Because so many New Yorker readers were both theatre and after-theatre-goers, the magazine included some of the after-dinner destinations in its “Goings On About Town” section. Excerpts follow.

Rubberneckers

The May 5 “Talk of the Town” commented on the challenges film crews faced when they shot on location in the city, in this case the production of Harold Lloyd’s latest comedy, Speedy:

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION…Silent film star Harold Lloyd (leaning on car at right) and his crew draw a crowd under Queensboro Bridge during the filming of Speedy. (silentlocations.wordpress.com)
BABE IN THE CITY…Harold Lloyd takes baseball legend Babe Ruth for a wild spin in 1928’s Speedy. (YouTube)

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Before Mommie Dearest

The actress Joan Crawford is best known today as the subject of the 1981 biopic, Mommie Dearest, which portrayed Crawford as an insecure, abusive parent to her adopted daughter Christina (the film was based on a 1978 memoir and exposé of the same name written by Christina Crawford).

But in the 1920s and 30s the former dancer and chorus girl was better known for her sex appeal, attractive to men for her looks and to women for the roles in which she portrayed hard-working women who find both romance and success.

PRETTY PICTURE…Ramon Novarro and Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore, 1928. (Silent Hollywood)

The New Yorker took notice of Crawford in its review of Across to Singapore, the critic O.C. noting that Crawford “gets prettier in every picture”…

Another film released later in 1928, Our Dancing Daughters, would make Crawford a star and a symbol of the liberated, 1920s flapper. Even the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would observe that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

Another actress with a talent for living was 34-year-old Mae West, who was appearing on Broadway in Diamond Lil. Already a 21-year veteran of the stage (she began performing in vaudeville in 1907 at age 14), West was known for writing and performing in risqué plays beginning in 1926, when she appeared in Sex, which was panned by conservative critics but enjoyed hot ticket sales.

Subsequent plays aroused controversy and kept her name in the newspapers, but her play Diamond Lil would become the Broadway hit that would cement her image as a sex symbol, one she would maintain until her death at age 87 in 1980. In the May 5 issue artist Miguel Covarrubias offered his vision of the Queen of the Bowery:

THEATRE CARD for the Broadway production of Diamond Lil at the Royale Theatre. (maewest.blogspot.com)
STILL AT IT 50 YEARS LATER…The 86-year-old Mae West in her last film, 1978’s Sextette. In a 1979 review, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film “a disorienting freak show in which Mae West, now 87 years old, does a frail imitation of the personality that wasn’t all that interesting 45 years ago. The movie, which opens today at the Victoria and other theaters, is a poetic, terrifying reminder of how a virtually disembodied ego can survive total physical decay and loss of common sense. (filmcomment.com)

From Our Advertisers

It’s interesting to see how 1920s advertisers made even the most mundane gadgets appear to be vital to one’s survival. The ad for the “Sesamee” auto switch lock is a case in point, appealing to upscale female readers of the New Yorker with this odd scenario in which the gadget enables the driver to avoid the awkward and potentially hazardous situation depicted below, although it hard to see what the actual threat might be from a dandy in a tie and waistcoat. Perhaps death from boredom.

Our cartoon is courtesy of Mary Petty,  who would become a renowned illustrator for the New Yorker, best remembered for a series of covers featuring her gentle satirization of the upper class Peabody family.

Next Time: Dog’s Best Friend…

 

Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” (in a piece titled “Music Makers”), found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

NO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH…The Johnsons pose with local tribesman who appeared in Simba. (Corbis)
FUN WITH NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)
BALI HAI…Osa shares a smoke with a local during one of the Johnsons’ filming excursions in the South Pacific. (Getty Images)

From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…

Machine Age Bromance

The great American inventor Thomas Edison was a hero to the young Henry Ford, who grew up to become something of an inventor himself with his pioneering development of the assembly line and mass production techniques. Over a matter of decades in the late 19th and early 20th century these two men would utterly transform the American landscape and our way of life.

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January 21, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Ford would first meet Edison in August 1896, at a convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies held at the Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn—it was just two months after the 33-year-old Ford had finished work on his first car—a “quadricycle”—consisting of a simple frame, an ethanol-powered engine and four bicycle wheels. In contrast, by 1896 the 49-year-old Edison was a worldwide celebrity, having already invented the phonograph (1877), the incandescent lamp (1879), public electricity (1883) and motion pictures (1888).

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WHAT NEXT, A CAR STEREO?…Thomas Edison (left) with his second phonograph, photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, D.C., April 1878. At right, Henry Ford sits in his first automobile, the Ford Quadricycle, in 1896. (Wikimedia Commons)
By 1907 the two had forged a close friendship that would endure the rest of their lives. So it was no surprise that these two giants of the machine age would show up together at the New York Auto Show at Madison Square Garden and take a gander at the latest technical marvels, including Ford’s new “Model A.” The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was on hand as witness:

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MORE FUN THAN CONEY ISLAND…Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford observe an electric welding process at Ford Motor Company’s 1928 New York Auto Show. (AP Photo)
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IT SOLD LIKE HOTCAKES…Henry Ford and son Edsel introducing the 1928 Ford Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York City, January 1928. (thehenryford.org)

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E.B. Drives the ‘A’

In the same issue (Jan. 21, 1928) E.B. White told readers how to drive the new Model A—in his roundabout way. Some excerpts:

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No doubt White was feeling a bit wistful with the arrival of the Model A, which supplanted its predecessor, the ubiquitous Model T. White even penned a farewell to the old automobile under a pseudonym that conflated White’s name with Richard Lee Strout’s, whose original submission to the New Yorker inspired White’s book.

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FAREWELL TIN LIZZIE…White driving his beloved Model T in the 1920s.

In Farewell to Model T White recalled his days after graduating from college, when in 1922 he set off across America with his typewriter and his Model T.  White wrote that “(his) own vision of the land—my own discovery of it—was shaped, more than by any other instrument, by a Model T Ford…a slow-motion roadster of miraculous design—strong, tremulous, and tireless, from sea to shining sea.”

The Eternal Debate

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey commented on the execution of former lovers and convicted murderers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, noting that once again the debate over the death penalty had been stirred, but as usual there was no resolution in sight. Little could Markey know that we would still be holding the debate 89 years later, with no resolution in sight.

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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction for the murder of Snyder’s husband. They were executed Jan. 12, 1928. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)

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Ahoy there

The New York Boat Show was back in town at the Grand Central Palace, enticing both the rich and the not-so-rich to answer the call of the sea. Correspondent Nicholas Trott observed:

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An advertisement in the same issue touted Elco’s “floating home”…

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But if you aspired to something larger than a modest cruiser, the Boat Show also featured an 85-foot yacht…

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But for the rest of the grasping masses, Chris-Craft offered the Cadet, an affordable 22′ runabout sold on an installment plan. Another ad from the issue asking those of modest means to answer “the call of freedom!”

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For an affordable boat, the Chris-Craft was really quite beautiful—its mahogany construction puts today’s fiberglass tubs to shame…

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PRETTY SWEET…A 1928 Chris-Craft Cadet. (Click to enlarge)

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Odds & Ends

The boat show was one indication that spring was already in the air. The various ads for clothing in the Jan. 21 issue had also thrown off the woolens, such as this one from Dobbs on Fifth Avenue, which featured a woman with all the lines of a skyscraper.

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And to achieve those lines, another advertisement advised young women to visit Marjorie Dork…

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…who seemed to do quite well for herself in the early days of fitness training…

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THOROUGHLY MODERN MARJORIE…New York beauty specialist Marjorie Dork, with her Packard, in New York’s Central Park, 1927. Original photo by John Adams Davis, New York. (Detroit Public Library)

And then there was a back page ad that said to hell with healthy living…

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The actress featured in the advertisement, Lenore Ulric, was considered one of the American theater’s top stars. Born in 1892 as Lenore Ulrich in New Ulm, Minnesota, she got her start on stage when she was still a teen, a protégé of the famed David Belasco. Though she primarily became a stage actress, she also made the occasional film appearance, portraying fiery, hot-blooded women of the femme fatale variety.

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Portrait of Lenore Ulric by New York’s Vandamm Studio. (broadway.cas.sc.edu)

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And we close with this post with a peek into the into upper class social scene, courtesy of Barbara Shermund…

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Next Time: Distant Rumblings…

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Odious Odes

After his famous transatlantic flight, not only did Charles Lindbergh have to endure endless banquets and the sweaty crush of adoring crowds, but he also inspired a lot of kitsch, including some spectacularly bad poetry that Dorothy Parker could’t help but eviscerate in the Jan. 7, 1928 issue.

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January 7, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Before we tackle the poetry, here is a sampling of various Lindbergh memorabilia:

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THEY’RE SELLING YOU…Assortment of Lindbergh souvenirs on display at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. (Eric Long/Smithsonian)
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A SHARP TONGUE…Dorothy Parker in 1928.

Parker led off her “Reading & Writing” column with this observation about the collapse of grammar and civilization in general…

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…and offered two examples—chocolate-covered olives and a new book of poems dedicated to Charles Lindbergh’s heroic solo crossing of the Atlantic…

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Parker’s comment about guiding a razor across her throat is a bit unnerving, considering she was chronically depressed and occasionally suicidal throughout her life. But then again, Parker didn’t like ugly things, including bad poetry, and especially bad poetry written by a 12-year-old “prodigy,” in this case a one Nathalia Crane, who claimed the top prize in the Lindbergh collection. Parker observed:

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Nathalia Crane gained fame after the publication of her first book of poetry, The Janitor’s Boy, which she wrote at age 10. After her second book of poetry was published in 1925, American poet Edwin Markham suggested the poems were part of a hoax because they exhibited a maturity of thought beyond the reach of a mere child. (A sidebar: Parker referred to Nathalia as a “Baby Peggy of poesy.” Baby Peggy, whose real name was Diana Serra Cary, was a beloved child silent film star. Still alive at this writing, she is 99 years old–the last living film star of the silent era).

90-105, 5, "Crane, Nathalia"; "Famous as a child prodigy, Nathalia Clara Ruth Crane (1913-1998) published her first book at age ten and later became a professor of literature. This photograph was used to illustrate a news story about ""The four ages of behavior,"" declaring that Crane, "
BAD POET’S SOCIETY?…Nathalia Crane in 1925. She would publish ten volumes of poetry and three novels, and would go on to a long career as a professor of English at San Diego State University. (Wikipedia)

Parker observed that “Lindbergh” was not a name well suited to poetry, and concluded with the hope that the aviator would be spared from having to read the “sickly, saccharine, inept, ill-wrought tributes”…

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Tilt Your Vote to Al

When New York Governor Al Smith announced his candidacy for U.S. President, New Yorker cartoonist Al Frueh had some fun with the governor’s habit of wearing his ever-present bowler hat at a tilt:

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They Dropped Like Flies

Nicholas Trott visited the 1928 New York Automobile Salon and rattled off this list of 43 car companies that would be displaying their shiny wares:

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Of those 43 companies, only 6 are in operation today. Interestingly, the car ads that appeared in the Jan. 7 issue were mostly from companies that are long gone. Here is a sampling:

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And finally, we close with Peter Arno and some dinner party hijinks…

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Next Time: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner…

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More Funny Business

My last entry featured cartoonist Bud Fisher, inventor of the comic “strip” (Mutt & Jeff) and the subject of the New Yorker’s Nov. 26, 1927 “Profile.” It was something of a surprise, then, to open the next issue, Dec. 3, and find the New Yorker’s literary critic Dorothy Parker offering her observations on the funny papers, including Sidney Smith’s comic strip, The Gumps.

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December 3, 1927 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Before we get to Ms. Parker, let’s have a look at The Gumps. Although that strip had plenty of slapstick, it was wordier than Mutt & Jeff and somewhat more realistic (Sidney Smith was the first cartoonist to kill off a regular character, in 1929–it caused a national outcry). An example of the strip from around 1920:

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(michaelspornanimation.com) Click image to enlarge

Like Bud Fisher, Sidney Smith would become wealthy from the merchandising of Gump toys, games, songs, food products, etc…

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The image of Andy Gump even graced cigar boxes. (kenlevine.blog)

The Gumps were also featured in nearly 50 animated shorts, and between 1923 and 1928 Universal produced dozens of two-reel comedies starring Joe Murphy (one of the original Keystone Cops) as Andy Gump, Fay Tincher as Min and Jack Morgan as Chester (two-reelers were usually comedies, about 20 minutes long).  The director of these short films, Norman Taurog, would go on to become the youngest director to win an Academy Award (Skippy 1931). He would also direct such films as Boy’s Town (1938) and nine Elvis Presley movies from 1960 to 1968.

In 1922, The Gumps cartoonist Sidney Smith famously signed a 10-year, one million-dollar contract. In 1935 he would sign an even more lucrative contract, but on his way home from the signing he would die in a car accident.

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OH MIN!…A publicity still from Universal’s two-reel comedy series featuring The Gumps. From left, Fay Tincher (Min), Joe Murphy (Andy Gump) and Jackie Morgan (Chester). The actress Fay Tincher is a bit of a mystery…an enterprising young comedienne who started her own production company in 1918, she dropped from public view by 1930, and little is known of her life since that time, even though she lived to see the year 1983, and died at age 99. (younghollywoodhof.com)
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Theatre poster announced the coming of what would be dozens of two-reelers produced by Universal between 1923 and 1928 featuring The Gumps. (imdb.com)

In her column, “Reading and Writing,” Dorothy Parker (writing under the pen name “Constant Reader”) lamented the fact that the comic strips were abandoning simple, light horseplay in favor of “melodramas.” Apparently even Andy Gump wasn’t exempt:

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GUMPS IN THE DUMPS…in late 1927 Dorothy Parker longed for the antics of the old, dimwitted Andy Gump and his much-brainier wife, Minerva. Above, the first strip from 1917 that introduced The Gumps. Below, a circa 1920 strip featuring a typical Andy Gump mishap and his trademark “Oh Min!” (newspapers.com) Click images to enlarge.

Parker also bemoaned the likes of Little Orphan Annie and the gang from Gasoline Alley, where everyday hijinks were replaced by melodrama:

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I LOVE YA, TOMORROW…but I’m gonna kick your ass today! Annie gets rough in this 1927 strip. Hugely popular, the strip (begun in 1924) inspired a ton of merchandise, films, a radio show and the musical Annie. Little Orphan Annie made creator Harold Gray a very rich man. (ha.comics.com) Click image to enlarge.
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SORRY, NO PIE IN THE FACE HERE…In this series of turgid word balloons, Walt gets full custody of the orphan Skeezix in this Gasoline Alley strip from 1927, ending what Dorothy Parker called “an interminable law suit.” First published November 24, 1918 by Frank King (who drew the strip until 1959), Gasoline Alley is still going and is the second-longest-running comic strip in the U.S. As Parker noted in her column, the characters in Gasoline Alley were allowed to age naturally. Skeezix is currently 97 years old. (hoodedutilitarian.com) Click image to enlarge.

Parker suffered throughout her life from depression, and no doubt turned to the funnies for respite. However, she wrote that she hadn’t “seen a Pow or a Bam in an egg’s age,” and sadly concluded that melodrama was what the readers wanted.

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When Minerva Was a Car

The New Yorker’s Nicholas Trott visited the Automobile Salon at the Hotel Commodore and noted that the latest trend favored an automobile’s “ruggedness” over its “prettiness.” Given the condition of roads in the 1920s, that probably wasn’t a bad thing…

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In the early days of the auto industry there were thousands of different manufacturers that eventually went broke or merged with other companies. Trott’s article mentioned new offerings from Chrysler, Mercedes, and Cadillac as well as from such makes as Erskine, Sterns-Knight, Minerva, Holbrook Franklin, Stutz, and Brewster.

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SEE THE USA IN YOUR, UM, MINERVA…The 1928 Minerva AF. (conceptcarz.com)

In “The Talk of the Town,” however, the editors wrote about another car with a far less colorful name: The Ford Model A. After 18 years of the ubiquitous black Model T, Ford buyers were ready for something different…

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GOOD ENOUGH…The 1928 Ford Model A Tudor Sedan (Wikipedia)

The New Yorker editors cautioned, however, that buyers of the Model A should “not expect too much” from a car aimed at more modest pocketbooks. In a little more than a year Ford would sell one million of the things, and by the summer of 1929, more than two million.

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When Model A production ended in early 1932, nearly five million of the cars had been produced.

German Atrocities?

It’s seemed a bit of an “about face” for New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell to write of the “horrific style of modern Germany” after previously writing admiringly of the Bauhaus movement and “International Style” promulgated by Le Corbusier. Chappell’s column “The Sky Line” included this subhead, “German Atrocities Neatly Escaped.” In a few years “German Atrocities” would refer to something very different…

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TEN-HUT!…The New Yorker’s George Chappell liked the Harriman Building at 39 Broadway despite its “militant aspect.” Designed by Cross & Cross, it opened in 1928 (Museum of the City of New York)

Another monstrous building of note in Chappell’s column was the “huge” Equitable Trust Building at 15 Broad Street…

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Equitable Trust Building at 15 Broad Street. Designed by Trowbridge & Livingston, completed in 1928. (Museum of the City of New York)

To save the best for last, Chappell also wrote of Cass Gilbert’s landmark New York Life Building, rising on the site of the old Madison Square Garden…

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The distinctive pyramidal gilded roof of the New York Life Insurance Building aglow as evening falls on Manhattan. Photograph by Priyanka, January 18th, 2015. (fineartamerica.com)

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She Nearly Made It

Morris Markey wrote about the exploits of pilot and actress Ruth Elder in his “Reporter at Large” column. Known as the “Miss America of Aviation,” on Oct. 11, 1927 Elder and her co-pilot, George Haldeman, took off from New York in her attempt to become the first woman to make a transatlantic crossing to Paris. Mechanical problems in their airplane (a Stinson Detroiter dubbed American Girl) caused them to ditch into the ocean 350 miles northeast of the Azores. Fortunately they were rescued by a Dutch oil tanker in the vicinity.

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MISS AMERICA OF AVIATION…Ruth Elder in 1930. (Vintage Every Day)
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NO WORSE FOR WEAR…Ruth Elder, center, and George Haldeman, far left, on board their rescue ship, the Barendrecht, Oct. 25, 1927. (ctie.monash.edu)
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WHAT A HOOT…Ruth Elder and Hoot Gibson in a promotional pose for the film Winged Horseman (1929).

Although they were unable to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s feat, Elder and Haldeman nevertheless established a new over-water endurance flight record of 2,623 miles–the longest flight ever made by a woman. They were honored with a ticker-tape parade upon their return to New York. Despite her derring-do, Elder suggested that she longed for a simpler, more domestic life…

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Whether or not she found the simple life it is hard to say. She married six times, perhaps looking for the right “old stuff” and not quite finding it.

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And finally, this ad from the Dec. 3 issue featuring the art of New Yorker contributor John Held Jr…

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…and this cartoon by Otto Soglow, depicting how one toff bags his “trophy”…

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Next Time: The Perfect Gift for 1927…

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Mutt & Jeff

We close out November 1927 by looking at a hugely popular comic strip–Mutt & Jeff–that made cartoonist Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher both famous and wealthy.

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Nov. 19 and Nov. 26, 1927 covers by Rea Irvin.

The editors of the Nov. 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker thought Fisher interesting enough to feature in a lengthy “Profile,” written by Kelly Coombs. A brief excerpt:

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According to John Adcock’s terrific Yesterday’s Papers blog, by 1916 Bud Fisher was the highest paid cartoonist on earth. The New Yorker suggested his annual income was $300,000 (roughly equivalent to more than $4 million today). In addition to the strips, created by Fisher and a team of ghost illustrators/writers, Mutt & Jeff were featured in vaudeville engagements, theatrical shows, animated cartoons, comic books and toys.

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DIE LAUGHING…Mutt & Jeff themed toys included this joke kit from Mysto Manufacturing. I don’t quite get the joke featured on the cover, depicting Jeff’s casually twisted approach to murdering poor Mutt. (melbirnkrant.com)
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IT’S A LIVING…Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher, drawing a likeness of the character “Jeff” at a Chicago Daily News event in 1915. (Chicago History Museum)

Fisher began his career as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and started his strip about “two mismatched tinhorns” in 1907. It went into syndication the following year. Mutt and Jeff, originally titled A. Mutt, is regarded as the first American newspaper cartoon published as a strip of panels, making it the first “comic strip.”

There was obviously a time when American readers thought Mutt & Jeff hilarious, but I don’t quite get its appeal. In this strip from 1926, Jeff gets a pie in the face. The giant question mark was frequently employed by Fisher, as were the dotted eye lines and explanatory arrows like the one in the last panel. No, Jeff didn’t get his brains blown out by Mutt. It is only a pie! Hah Hah!

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Click on image to enlarge

Another visual cliché from comics of yore was the angry wife wielding a rolling pin. Apparently Jeff refers to Mutt’s wife as an “Old Buzzard” and assumes she is already in bed (sorry about the poor quality of the reproduction). Jeff subsequently gets whacked with the rolling pin, and Mutt takes it on the bean with a flatiron. That is quite a feat, throwing a grown man through a window while simultaneously hitting him on the head with a flatiron…

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Click on image to enlarge (Both strips courtesy University of Michigan)

The duo were also featured in more than 300 animated “half-reelers” produced between 1913 and 1926, including Mutt and Jeff: On Strike from 1920. The short film (which can be viewed here) even includes rare footage of Bud Fisher himself, since the story–sort of a film within a film–involves the penniless Mutt and Jeff going on strike after they see a movie featuring Fisher’s lavish home.

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STRIKEBREAKER…Still images from the silent half-reeler, Mutt and Jeff: On Strike. Fisher is shown at home discussing terms over the phone with his striking characters. They lose. (www.filmpreservation.org)

Coombs concluded the New Yorker “Profile” with these observations concerning Fisher’s personal habits:

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Fisher employed a number of assistants on the strip, including  George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and a high-school boy named Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). When Fisher appeared to lose interest in the strip in the 1930s, assistant Al Smith took over and drew the strip for nearly fifty years (but Smith didn’t sign his own name on the strip until after Fisher’s death in 1954).

In Yesterday’s Papers, Adcock notes that Fisher “was the unlikeliest person you could think of to draw Mutt and Jeff…along with most of his contemporary cartoonist-journalists pals, (he) enjoyed fights, chorus girls, gambling, and saloons. Fisher liked to shoot up hotel rooms with his pistols, one of which was a gift from Pancho Villa, indoors when he was drunk.”

Heads in the Clouds

Thanks to the race to fly across the Atlantic, toy models of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and other planes were in high demand for the Christmas season, according to this item in the Nov. 26, 1927, “Talk of the Town:”

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BUILT TO LAST…A Metalcraft model kit (box, upper image, contents below) from the late 1920s. It was all metal in the days before plastic model kits. (eBay)

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At a Loss For Words

Jumping back to the Nov. 19, 1927 issue, we go from the low art of Bud Fisher to the high art of John Marin featured in “The Art Galleries” section of the New Yorker. Art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote:

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SAVAGE WORK…John Marin, White Horses – Sea Movement off Deer Isle, Maine, 1926. (Whitney Museum of American Art)

But perhaps “high art” is not an accurate description of Marin’s paintings, since Marin himself wasn’t into “highfalutin words” to describe his work…

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HAUNTING BEAUTY…John Marin, Echo Lake Franconia Range White Mountain Country, 1927 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.)

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In the previous week’s issue (Nov. 12) Marmon 8 was advertised as an ideal car for women. Not to be outdone, the folks at Buick shot back with this colorful ad in the Nov. 19 issue of the New Yorker:

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The Nov. 19 issue also featured this strange advertisement from the famed Wanamaker department store. Strange mainly because of the illustration, which features a fashionable woman departing a fanciful aircraft studded with mullioned windows(!) and a staircase that stretches to improbable depths…oh, and in case the reader might miss the snob appeal associated with French furs, the words Paris, Parisian or French are featured ten times…

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And finally, the ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon featuring the humorous mismatch of rich old duffer and ditzy young mistress, courtesy of Julian de Miskey…

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Next Time: More Funny Business…

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