The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

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Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

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Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

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How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…

Happy 1929!

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.

Dec. 22, 1928 and Dec. 29, 1928 covers by Rea Irvin.

The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few. Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:

Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.

ON THE QUIETER SIDE…Abe Birnbaum (pictured here circa 1960) created more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to the 1970s. At right, a cover from March 17, 1962. (google.com.br)

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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…

…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…

Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):

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Hello Down There

Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:

This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”

Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:

STAR POWER…At left, American actress Maude Adams, circa 1900. At right, Adams as Peter Pan, her most famous stage role. Adams was the first American to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She played the role 1,500 times between 1905-1915. She retired from the stage in 1918 after a severe bout with the flu. She died at age 80 in 1953. (Wikipedia/Oakland Tribune)

Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.

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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929

The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:

JAM SESSION…Detail from a 1929 photo of traffic on Fifth Avenue. (Getty)

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The Passing of a Poet

The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:

PORTRAITS…Elinor Wylie posed for her friend Carl Van Vechten in this 1922 portrait (left). The photo at right, probably taken around 1926, was clearly the inspiration for the illustration by Peter Arno that accompanied “Portrait.” (Yale University/humorinamerica.wordpress.com)

It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.

Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According to Karen Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.

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Age of Innocence

The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:

And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:

HOW SHE REALLY LOOKED…Katharine Cornell as ‘Countess Ellen Olenska’ in this Vandamm Studio portrait dated November 27, 1928. (Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library)

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Before Baby Snooks

Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:

MY MAN…Fanny Brice, Guinn Williams, and Edna Murphy on the set of the partially silent film My Man, 1928. Her first movie appearance, Brice played Fanny Brand, a poor girl who becomes a star. The film is now considered lost, since only an incomplete version survives. (brice.nl)
THROUGH THE YEARS…At left, singer and actress Fanny Brice from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, circa 1915. At right, Brice in the role of Baby Snooks, 1940. (Vintage Everyday/Wikipedia)

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Let’s Get Physical

Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:

NO FRILLS FITNESS…Famed track and field athlete Mildred Babe Didrickson on a running machine at Artie McGovern’s gymnasium in New York, 1933. That’s Artie himself supervising the workout. (Bettmann)

And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill

Next Time: Out With the Old…

What Santa Brought in 1928

As we sweep up the tinsel and wrappings from another holiday season, let’s take a look back at 1928 and see what the New York “smart set” wished for under the Christmas tree.

Nov. 24, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

We’ll start with the outlandish, namely this advertisement from Kurzman furriers on Fifth Avenue, which offered just two rare chinchilla coats for sale, one for $45K and the other for a mere $20K. That would be roughly equivalent to $630K and $280K in 2017 dollars. Oh Santa baby…

If you didn’t get the chinchilla, you could have asked for a Glycine Swiss watch, a gift “whose smartness reflects your taste”… and is “the supreme adornment of the patrician wrist.”

The New Yorker was filled with such ads that appealed to class pretensions, but thankfully the editorial side of the magazine mostly tweaked those pretensions, including this Nov. 24 cartoon by John Elmore:

In the following issue (Dec. 1), Elmore also contributed this unsigned cartoon (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill blog for the identification):

Back to the ads for Nov. 24, Kolster Radio continued its series featuring illustrations by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, this one borrowing from his familiar themes featuring gold-diggers and sugar daddies…

…and 56-year-old stage and silent film actress Fannie Ward offered proof that lighting up a Lucky could keep you slim and youthful. Whether or not she actually smoked the things, Ward was indeed best known for her seemingly ageless appearance.

Our comics from Nov. 24 issue are courtesy of Arno…

…and Helen Hokinson

We continue our Christmas wish list with the Dec. 1, 1928 issue…

Dec. 1, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Regarding gifts for her, how about some fine French perfume, “originally created for the exclusive use of one of the present Nobility of France” (apparently a person descended from the line that managed to keep their heads attached to their necks)…

…and for him, the ubiquitous Christmas necktie, with a choice of patterns that would still serve him well in 2018…

Your “smoking friends” would doubtless have appreciated a rum-infused rumidor, available in a variety of finishes and sizes…

…or you could choose from the sundries offered up by Abercrombie & Fitch (bookends appeared to be a popular item)…

…and finally, for that special, anal-retentive someone on your list, “Fabrikoid” covers would keep his or her periodicals neat and tidy (note the New Yorker is conspicuously missing here).

Note: Fabrikoid “was one of DuPont’s first non-explosives products. Produced by coating fabric with nitrocellulose (yep, basically the same flammable stuff silent films were printed on) and marketed as artificial leather, Fabrikoid was widely used in upholstery, luggage and bookbindings during the early 20th century. In the 1920s, Fabrikoid became the preferred material for automobile convertible tops and seat covers” (text from www2.dupont.com).

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Despite the holidays, there was still news to be reported. The Nov. 24 issue profiled violinist Fritz Kreisler, while the Dec. 1 edition featured a profile of Harpo Marx, written by his fellow Algonquin Round Tabler Alexander Woollcott. Two brief excerpts:

In this next excerpt, it is interesting to note that Woollcott couldn’t see ahead to the huge success in film that awaited Harpo Marx and his brothers. Just eight months after Woollcott’s profile, the Marx Brothers would premiere their first film, The Cocoanuts, and continue to draw on material from their vaudeville and Broadway days to produce a string a comedy hits throughout the 1930s and 40s.

In other news from the Dec. 1 issue, Frank Sullivan grumbled about the recent election of President Herbert Hoover and the state of politics in general, echoing the general sentiment of his New Yorker colleagues in dismissing the national elections as little more than silly sideshow. Two excerpts:

The New Yorker was less pessimistic when it came to the changing skyline, and was almost giddy at times about the latest technology seemingly transforming the city overnight. This time it was the gilded New York Life Insurance tower, and its impressive pneumatic tube system:

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…Cass Gilbert’s newly completed New York Life Insurance Building in 1928. (Smithsonian)
YOU TUBERS…Women sporting fashionable bobs working the pneumatic tubes at the new home of the New York Life Insurance Company at 51 Madison Avenue, 1928. (Corbis)

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And to close, some more holiday offerings, this time for the kiddies, from Macy’s Department Store, as reported by writer Bertram Bloch:

WHAT THE?…Macy’s kicked off the Christmas season with their famed Thanksgiving Parade in 1924. In this image, from 1928, New Yorkers enjoyed an array of creepy balloon animals.
NOT PC, DUDE…The Macy’s Christmas window display in 1928 featured the Tony Sarg marionettes in a tableau based on The Adventures of Christopher Columbus. (Pinterest)
SUPER SOAKER…With this 1928 sit ‘n ride toy, junior could hose down the living room thanks to its large water tank and hand crank-operated water tower. (collector.com)

Next Time: Out of the Mouth of Babes…

Diamond Mae

Although the Roaring Twenties saw the relaxing of many moral strictures — particularly in major cities like New York — Mae West’s frank portrayals of sex on an off-Broadway stage could still create a stir in the newspapers and among arbiters of American probity.

Nov. 19, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Before she appeared in films (mostly in the 1930s) Mae West was well known to New Yorkers both in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her wider fame came in 1927, when many Americans read about her arrest on obscenity charges linked to a scandalous play simply titled Sex. A story of a Montreal prostitute, Sex opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on April 1926 to modest audiences and mostly scathing reviews. The New York Times, for examplecalled it a “crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Perhaps because of the negative reviews, which mostly focused on the play’s morality, curious audiences flocked to see it. Ironically (at least, I imagine, to the critics), Sex was the only play on Broadway in 1926 to stay open through the summer and into the following year.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…Mae West in a publicity photo from 1926. At right, promotional poster for Sex, which touted the play as the “Biggest Sensation Since The Armistice.” (maewest.blogspot.com/boweryboyshistory.com)

The fun ended when New York City police raided West’s production company in February 1927 and charged her with obscenity. In another ironic and hypocritical twist (many in the police department and in the city’s court system had enjoyed the play themselves, along with approximately 325,000 others during the play’s 10-month run), authorities fined West $500 and sentenced her to 10 days in a workhouse on Welfare Island. Always the entrepreneur, West used the sentence to her advantage, and even arrived at the prison in a limousine. It was during her short stint in prison that she began work on her smash hit Diamond Lil.

Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who often exposed the hypocrisy and prejudice in American life in her short fiction, profiled West for the Nov. 10, 1928 issue:

Note Winslow’s surprise to find West to be much smaller than she imagined (indeed, West barely stood five feet tall). Because West preferred a curvy, buxom figure to the thin flapper look, many like Winslow assumed her to be a much larger woman. No doubt her lavish costumes also suggested greater proportions:

West explained to Winslow that she was simply giving the people what they wanted, whether it was outlandish costumes or some “dirt” in their entertainments. Behind this facade, however, was a private, hard-working woman who wrote much of her own material and had the savvy to market it.

TOO MUCH FOR YOUR TICKER?…Mae West tangles with Barry O’Neill in this 1926 publicity still for Sex. The image came with a warning no doubt cooked up by West herself: “If you cannot stand excitement—see your doctor before visiting Mae West in Sex.” (Bettmann/Corbis)

In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…Mae West with Sex co-star Barry O’Neill during a 1927 trial for obscenity charges. During the trial the judge asked the defendant: “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West replied, “On the contrary, your Honor. I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” (gvshp.org)

Winslow concluded her piece wondering if West had peaked in her success, and would “fade out” along with so many other vaudeville stars…

…. In less than seven years, West at age 42 would become Hollywood’s highest paid star and second only to William Randolph Hearst as the highest paid person in America. Ninety-two years after Sex, West remains an icon of popular culture around the world.

ALL THAT GLITTERS…Drawing of Mae West that accompanied the New Yorker profile. At right, publicity photo for Diamond Lil, 1928. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The Nov. 10 issue featured this all American endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes from World Series winning pitcher Waite Hoyt…never mind that the New Yorker itself completely ignored the World Series and baseball in general.

…and Charles of the Ritz used a combination of vanity, snob appeal and class anxiety to promote their latest beauty ensemble…

The comics glimpsed the foibles of the upper classes, including this terrific entry by 22-year-old Ben Hur Baz, a Mexico-born artist who would go on to become famous for his pin-ups in the 1940s and 50s, many of them appearing in Esquire:

…and a game of blind man’s buff (or some say ‘bluff’) as rendered by Peter Arno:

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The Nov. 17 issue featured an unusual entry by E.B. White, who, like many of his New Yorker colleagues, found many reasons to be critical of the media, including the dumbing down of newspapers that increasingly favored trivia, sensation and promotion over serious discourse.

Nov. 17, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

White skewered the news of the day in this two-page spread that parodied the look and language of contemporary newspapers (click to enlarge):

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The issue’s “Talk of the Town” featured a lengthy entry on Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, a figure greatly admired and generally lauded by the magazine’s sportswriters. A brief excerpt:

The Nov. 17 film reviews gave a rare thumbs up to an American movie, Show People, which starred Marion Davies.

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…William Haines (left) and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in the 1928 Hollywood send-up film, Show People, directed by King Vidor. Chaplin made this rare appearance as himself, without his “Little Tramp” makeup. He was uncredited in the film, and asked to be paid the extra’s fee of only $7.50. (silent-volume.blogspot.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Although you couldn’t legally procure a drink in 1928, you could (unlike today) legally purchase of box of Cuban cigars for you special someone:

…or if you preferred, a carton Chesterfields. Apparently someone in marketing thought conjuring up the horrors of trench warfare would help sell some smokes…

And finally, Peter Arno found out what’s for dinner at the table of a great outdoorsman:

Next Time: What Santa Brought in 1928…

 

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…Gene Tunney during a visit to Paris in 1930. (Getty)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

Mussolini’s Romance Novel

About a decade before he joined the Nazis in spreading the madness of war across the European continent, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini penned a historical novel about a love affair between a Catholic cardinal and his beautiful mistress. Despite the premise, it was not exactly a Harlequin Romance.

Sept. 8, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey. Sept. 15, 1928 cover by Peter Arno. (click to enlarge)

Although many perceived Mussolini as nothing more than a thug, or even a clown when he styled himself as Il Duce, Mussolini thought himself an intellectual, and as a younger man sometimes worked as a journalist and essayist. That was also when he wrote his one and only novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress (1909), serialized in the socialist newspaper Il Popolo under the original title Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. When it was translated into English in 1928, the distasteful task of reviewing the book (in the Sept. 15, 1928 issue) fell to Dorothy Parker. She began thusly:

In all fairness, Parker did ask for it. She went on to write “On the memorable day that The Cardinal’s Mistress arrived in the office of this lucky magazine, I was the girl who pled, ‘Please, teacher, may I have it to take home with me? Honest, I don’t want a cent of money for reviewing it. I’ll do it free of charge; I’ll even pay handsomely for the privilege.’ Well, of course, they wouldn’t hear a word of that – or at least I hope to heaven they didn’t – but I got the book. I had all sorts of happy plans about it. I was going to have a lot of fun. I was going to kid what you Americans call the tripe (les tripes) out of it. At last, I thought, had come my big chance to show up this guy Mussolini. A regular Roman holiday, that’s what it was going to be.” But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

Alfred Armstrong, writing for Oddbooks (oddbooks.co.uk) describes The Cardinal’s Mistress as a story about a historical figure, Emanuel Madruzzo, Cardinal of Trent, his mistress Claudia Particella, “and the unhappy course of their love affair.” Armstrong notes that the book was written rather carelessly, with a wandering plot that suggests Mussolini’s only interest in the characters was to place them in a historical setting that provided “an excuse for lengthy anti-clerical rants, and to portray the lust, vengefulness and murderousness of their adversaries.”

Although she could not make heads nor tails out of the book, it did stir Parker’s imagination enough to conjure up an insult for the “old Duce.”

WHERE IS THE LOVE?…Cover of the 1928 translation of The Cardinal’s Mistress, an anti-clerical rant thinly disguised as a love story. At right, Benito Mussolini in 1928. (Amazon/waralbum.ru)

For good measure, I’ll toss in this New Yorker comic by Mary Petty that appeared a few weeks later in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue:

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The Sound Stays in the Picture

Gilbert Seldes joined the chorus of voices at the New Yorker who decried the advent of sound in motion pictures, particularly when sound was used as a gimmick rather than as an enhancement to the production. So when Paramount’s Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor put their hands (and their sounds) on Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece The Patriot, Seldes decided he’d had enough of this “talkie” nonsense, taking on the producers in a special feature in the Sept. 15 issue titled “The Old Believers:”

New Yorker artist Hugo Gellert paid his own respects to The Patriot with this illustration in the theatre review section of the Sept. 15, 1928 issue.

Following his opening salvo, Seldes told readers why the film was important, how it revived his faith in movies and even in the possibility of intelligence and taste among the masses:

PERNICIOUS INTERFERENCE…Critic Gilbert Seldes took aim at Paramount execs Adolph Zukor, far left, and Jesse Lasky, center, for mucking up Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot with unnecessary sound effects. All photos circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

As for the taste and intelligence of producers, that was another matter. Seldes concluded his piece by laying into Zukor and Lasky for their “pernicious interference” with the masterpiece:

Seldes was so disheartened that he wondered if movies, as an imaginative and intelligent art form, would be dead in 10 years.

Seldes was wrong about the death of good movies, but ironically his beloved Patriot would not live on, and would disappear into the land of lost films. There are a few pieces in a UCLA archive, but no negative or set of complete reels are known to exist.

WHY YOU NAUGHTY OLD CZAR…Florence Vidor as Countess Ostermann and Emil Jannings as Czar Paul I in The Patriot. Nominated for five Oscars, the film would win in the “Best Writing” category at the 1930 Academy Awards.(mubi.com)

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Before He Was Kooky and Ooky

The child actor Jackie Coogan was the focus of a lengthy “Talk of the Town” piece (written by Alva Johnston and E. B. White) that looked in on the life and habits of the young film star, best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film classic The Kid.

Coogan was one of the first child stars in film history, earning an estimated $3 to $4 million (roughly more than $50 million in today’s dollars). “Talk” found the 13-year-old star in his dressing room, reading a theatrical newspaper:

The New Yorker couldn’t resist mentioning that the magazine itself proved to be an inspiration to the boy and his father:

As one of the first child stars Coogan also broke some tough ground for other child actors to follow. In early 1935 Jackie’s father, John Henry Coogan, Jr., was killed in a car accident. John Henry conservatively managed Jackie’s assets, but after his death John Henry’s widow, Lillian and her new husband Arthur Bernstein (who was the family lawyer), squandered most of Jackie’s fortune on fur coats, diamonds and expensive cars. Jackie Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses was only able to recover a mere $126,000 of his earnings. One good outcome was California’s enactment in 1939 of the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers. The California Child Actor’s Bill, sometimes called the “Coogan Act,” required employers of child actors to set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust.

Jackie Coogan would go on to perform in mostly supporting roles and would marry four times, most famously to actress Betty Grable from 1937 to 1939. He gained renewed fame in the 1960s by portraying Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series.

VARIETY ACT…Clockwise, from left: Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, featuring 6-year-old Jackie Coogan; Jackie on a 1928 visit to Berlin with his mother Lillian and father John Henry Coogan, Jr.; Jackie as Uncle Fester in TV’s The Addams Family, 1966. (Wikiwand/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A mixed bag from the Sept. 15 issue, including this strip of ads near the back of the magazine that indicate not all New Yorker readers were as well-heeled as those who were targeted by the splashier, full-page ads in the magazine’s front section…

…and yet another endorsement for Old Gold cigarettes, this time from the Duchess of Sutherland, who joined fellow blue bloods in the blindfold test:

Nothing like profiting from the misery of others. In this ad, James McCreery & Company offered up rugs from “old Turkish families” who were “forced to sell their rare rugs and jewels in order to exist.” They weren’t cheap: the rug pictured was offered for $3,250, more than $45,000 in today’s buying power.

The “famous stage beauty” and early silent film star Billie Burke (who was married to Florenz Ziegfeld of “Follies” fame) shilled for Cutex nail polish…

…and 11 years later would portray Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz.

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (cinemagumbo)

Now for the our comics, Peter Arno from the Sept. 8 issue…

And in the Sept 15 issue, W.P. Trent looks in on a homey café that moonlights as a speakeasy…

…and back to Peter Arno, who looks in on toffs slumming at Coney Island…

Next Time: This Thing Called Baseball…

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…