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.” The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” 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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The Shape of Things to Come

It is often observed that when we look to the past we can see our the future. More than 90 years ago, Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) wrote an influential book on modern architecture, Vers une Architecture (1923) that helped to radically change our built environment. Translated into English in 1927 under varying titles (Toward an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), the book caught the appreciative eye of New Yorker architecture critic George Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym “T-Square.”

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Nov. 12, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Given that most new architecture in Manhattan was adorned in architectural stylings from the past, or gussied up in Jazz Age art deco, Chappell was introducing his readers to something very different, to ideas that would transform their city within two generations.

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A SOBER-MINDED THINKER…Le Corbusier at work in his apartment at 20 Rue Jacob, Paris, in the late 1920s. (Brassai Paris)

In his embrace of technology and mass production, Corbusier maintained that houses should be built in standardized forms that allowed for continuous refinement, designed as “machines for living” with the same precision as automobiles and airplanes…

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In case you doubt the architect’s fervor, here is Corbusier’s manifesto on mass production included in Towards a New Architecture:

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MACHINES FOR LIVING…This two-family structure on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, was designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret in 1927. It was one of the first built manifestations of Corbusier’s Five Points of a New Architecture, a manifesto written in 1926. The house set an important precedent for the emerging International Style associated with Germany’s Bauhaus movement. (noordinaryhomes.com)

In Towards a New Architecture, Corbusier wrote that while architecture was  stifled by custom and lost in the past (“to send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life…”), engineers were embracing new technologies and building simple, effective and “honest” structures. Rather than rely on past forms or contemporary trends such as art deco, Corbusier said architecture should fundamentally change how humans interact with buildings.

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ALL DRESSED UP WITH NOWHERE TO GO…A photograph from Towards a New Architecture. Corbusier said contemporary architecture was stifled by custom and lost in the past. (monoskop.org)
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FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION…Examples of “honest” and functional industrial buildings featured in Towards a New Architecture. (monoskop.org)

Corbusier concluded his book with a moral imperative and an ominous choice  for the future: “Architecture or Revolution.”  He asserted that the “great disagreement between the modern state of mind…and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus” would force modern man to live in an “old and hostile environment” and deny him an “organized family life,” ultimately leading to the destruction of the family.

In less than 10 years the Nazis would chase the “degenerate” Bauhaus out of Europe and into the embrace of American academe. In short order Corporate America would adopt Corbusier’s International Style, if imperfectly, but most Americans would prove resistant to making their homes into “machines for living.”

Corbusier would doubtless be shocked (and disappointed) to know that 100 years hence people would still choose to live in mock Tudors and “Tuscan Villas,” especially in the midst of so much advanced technology.

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HOME SWEET HOME…Villa Savoye near Paris, France. Designed by Le Corbusier in 1928, completed in 1931. Named a World Heritage Site in 2016. (projectoras.com)

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AS HE WAS SAYING…

The new Sherry-Netherland apartment hotel near Central Park was exactly the sort of architecture Corbusier detested. The New Yorker editors in “The Talk of the Town,” however, seemed impressed with its elegant appointments…

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SUMPTUOUS…The foyer of the Sherry-Netherland, restored to its former glory in 2014. (Wikipedia)
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ROOM WITH A VIEW…The Sherry-Netherland penthouse, priced at $35,000 a year in 1927, is now worth more than $100 million.

“Talk” noted that beneath the Sherry-Netherland’s spire the penthouse apartment could be had for $35,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $477,000 today. The building went co-op in the 1950s, and that would have been a good time to buy the penthouse. Today it is valued at more than $100 million.

Poo on Pooh

Dorothy Parker lamented the state of children’s literature in the “Books” section, and expressed her displeasure with A.A. Milne, a former humor writer for Punch who “went quaint” with his Winnie the Pooh stories.

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OLD SOFTIE…A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex, in 1926. Photo by Howard Coster. (npg.org.uk)

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New Game in Town

Niven Busch Jr. wrote about the growing popularity of professional hockey. Tex Rickard’s two-year-old franchise, the New York Rangers, were a major draw at the new Madison Square Garden (they would win the Stanley Cup in their second year), and even Texans were into the sport–Busch noted that a game between Dallas and Fort Worth teams drew 20,000 spectators.

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ICE MEN…Stanley Cup winners, the 1927-28 New York Rangers. (rangers.ice.nhl.com)

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And finally, from the world of advertising, here is one in a series of classically themed ads for the McCreery department store…

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…and this advertisement for the Marmon 8, an “ideal woman’s car”…
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Next time: Mutt & Jeff…

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Death Avenue Days

Before the elevated tracks were constructed in the early 1930s in Manhattan’s west side warehouse district (home of today’s popular “High Line”), freight trains rumbled through the city–at street level–on “Death Avenue.”

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November 5, 1927 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846, which was a bad plan from the very start. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way.

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ON YOUR LEFT!…Both diesel and steam locomotives rumbled along Manhattan avenues well into the 20th century. Pictured is a freight train at 11th and 41st Street. Eleventh was known as “Death Avenue.” (Forgotten NY)

According to Friends of the High Line, “an 1892 New York World article referred to the trains as ‘a monster which has menaced them night and day,’ and by 1908 the Bureau of Municipal Research claimed that since 1852, the trains had killed 436 people. A New York Times piece from the same year reported that in the preceding decade there had been almost 200 deaths, mostly of children.”

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MIXED USE…This circa 1920 photo shows the congestion that occurred when freight trains, horse-drawn carts, cars, and pedestrians used the same streets. (Kalmbach Publishing Company)
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SHOWDOWN…Beginning in 1850, the West Side Cowboys rode ahead of oncoming trains to ensure the safety of people on the street, although statistics show that some did not heed the warnings. (Friends of the High Line)

The safety issues on Death Avenue were finally addressed in 1929 when city and state officials reached an agreement with New York Central Railroad to move the rail above street level. New elevated tracks opened in 1934 were novel in the way they bisected city blocks, unloading cargo directly into buildings in the district.

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THIS WORKED BETTER…The elevated tracks served warehouses including one for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), pictured above, which today houses another popular High Line attraction, the Chelsea Market. (Friends of the High Line)
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A New York Central Railroad advertisement touting the benefits of its elevated West Side Line, which today supports a unique and popular urban park–the High Line. (Friends of the High Line)

The elevated West Side Line’s unique design also complements the current use of the tracks–the High Line, one of New York’s most popular tourist draws and a widely successful example of urban reuse and renewal. Today few visitors to the High Line are aware that the peaceful oasis they now enjoy was once a dangerous and chaotic place that was home to the aptly named Death Avenue…

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NOT SO BAD, THIS…Visitors to the High Line enjoy a peaceful oasis above the former “Death Avenue.” (Friends of the High Line)

What prompted my interest in Death Avenue was this illustration by Reginald Marsh in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue of the New Yorker:

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Marsh (1898-1954) joined the New Yorker as one of its first cartoonists, and stayed there for seven years. He was practically born an artist, growing up in an artists’ colony in New Jersey where his father worked as a noted muralist and his mother made watercolors. After graduating from Yale he went to work of the Daily News, where he contributed sketches of vaudeville acts and illustrated a column titled “People We’d Like to Kill but Don’t.”

Described as a “Social Realist” painter, Marsh studied painting at the Art Students League, where the prevailing theme was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash in 1929…

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WHY NOT USE THE “L”?…the title of a 1930 work by Reginald Marsh. (Whitney Museum of Art)
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SELF REFLECTION…Reginald Marsh with one of his self-portrait paintings, circa 1938. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Write What You Know

Among other items in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue was this profile written by Charles Shaw of fellow New Yorker contributor (artist and writer) Ralph Barton. An excerpt, with sketch by Peter Arno…

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By Any Other Name

As it still does today, the New Yorker listed area happenings in the front section of the magazine, and in the early days the magazine included extensive listings of sporting events. The excerpt below offers various diversions from a “hunt race” to “squash tennis.” There were also professional football games featuring such mighty foes as the New York Giants and the Duluth Eskimos…

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Before the age of smart phones, the term “smart” in advertising meant one was on the leading edge of fashion–for aspiring young women this meant all things French–clothes, perfumes, beauty treatments–and for the bride, the all-important trousseaux, or so claimed this advertisement from Franklin Simon & Co. on page five of the Nov. 5 issue…

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Couldn’t afford the latest from Paris? In that case you could turn to the back pages of the same issue, where you would find cheaper ads from places like Kathleen, Inc, which sold knock-offs of the latest in haute couture

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And finally, we return to Reginald Marsh, who contributed this cartoon to the Nov. 5 issue…

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Next Time: The Shape of Things to Come…

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