Perhaps no other hairstyle has a stronger link to a historical period than the “bob cut,” associated not only with the flapper lifestyle in the 1920s but with women in general who wished to signal their independence from old cultural norms that defined femininity.
Women in Western cultures typically wore their hair long, but in the early years of the 20th century a few women of prominence began to flout convention and wear their hair in a bobbed style, including French actress Polaire, who began wearing her hair short in the 1890s; English socialite Lady Diana Cooper, who wore her hair short as a child and continued to do so as an adult; and dancer Irene Castle, who unveiled her “Castle Bob” to Americans in 1915. By 1920 the style was all the rage.
Another famous bobbed flapper of the 1920s was the New Yorker‘s own Lois Long, who wrote under the pseudonym “Lipstick” for her nightlife column “Tables For Two,” but signed her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) with a simple “L.L.” Long was also a regular unsigned contributor to “The Talk of the Town,” and is credited as one the New Yorker’s early writers who gave the magazine its “voice.”
In the March 10, 1928 issue Long wrote in “On and Off the Avenue” about the challenges in maintaining her bobbed hairstyle:
Many women in the 1920s preferred to have a permanent wave treatment applied to their bob, which usually involved the application of high heat via a complex array of wires and hot rollers. In the March 10 issue, this ad promoted an alternative “cool method”…
…and in the March 17, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, the Ace Comb company made a pitch to improve its market share by touting their hard rubber combs as ideal for the “ragged bob”…
…and for some further context on all things bobbed, following are some images gleaned from glamourdaze.com, including a page from a 1920s movie magazine featuring Paramount’s bobbed stars; a 1920s salon advertisement promoting bobs for all ages; and finally, a helpful reference card from the American Hairdresser, circa 1924…
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A New Plot for Billy Haines
William “Billy” Haines was a number one male box office draw in the 1920s, and throughout the decade was typecast in a number of comic roles as a conceited baseball player (Slide, Kelly, Slide), conceited cadet (West Point), conceited football star (Brown of Harvard), conceited golfer (Spring Fever), and conceited polo player (The Smart Set). It was that last picture that left the New Yorker wanting Haines to consider taking a different approach in his next picture:
Haines would eventually escape being typecast as a wisecracking, arrogant leading man, not by choosing different roles but by quitting acting altogether in 1935. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, had demanded Haines deny his gay lifestyle (which he had lived quite openly despite the times) and marry a woman for appearances. Haines went on to become a successful interior designer, with clients ranging from Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
In our featured cartoon from March 10, 1928, Helen Hokinson spies on her famous spinsters passing the time with a Ouija board:
Before screenwriter Niven Busch headed to Hollywood in 1931, he cut his teeth as writer for the New Yorker, contributing a series of profiles (later compiled in Twenty-one Americans) as well as an intermittent series from May 1927 to Feb. 1930 on New York’s Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Always careful to shield the identity of speakeasy owners and patrons, Busch described the often less-than-glamorous digs of New York’s illegal watering holes. In a speakeasy called “The No Trump” (referring to card-playing, and not a future president), two Irish brothers took turns mixing drinks “on a kitchen table in a cubbyhole” while Busch sat in a darkened bar and listened in on a conversation coming from the adjoining “bridge room”…
Busch also described his visit to the “Circus Speakeasy,” operated by a man who “travelled for 21 years with the Ringling Circus”…
In his later years as a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood, Busch would script movies ranging from The Man With Two Faces (1934) starring Edward G. Robinson, to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with Lana Turner.
One of the prominent voices of the unsigned “Talk of the Town,” humorist E.B. White was also a regular contributor of short pieces in the New Yorker, such as the following which described a mistaken encounter on an overnight train:
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Another way to calm the jitters
If you couldn’t legally (or illegally) buy Johnny Walker Scotch whisky in 1928, you had to settle for their brand of “vacuumed-cleaned, extremely mild” cigarettes, which were apparently sold as late as the 1950s…
And to get a taste of what was showing at the local cinemas, I’ve included this page-and-third spread of movie and theatre ads from the back pages. Note the film Sunrise featured prominently at the top left-hand corner.
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston, this 1927 silent romantic drama, directed by F.W. Murnau, used the new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making it one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. Sunrise (full title: The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) won the Academy Award in the category “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, and Gaynor won the first Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.” Sunrise is considered one of the greatest films of the silent era and even today is widely considered a masterpiece.
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And finally, more hijinks from the moneyed classes, courtesy of Peter Arno:
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.
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:
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:
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:
Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…
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.
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.
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.
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…
As I’ve previously noted, reading back issues of periodicals often gives one a feeling of omniscience; as I thumb through week after week of late 1920s New Yorkers, I realize that for all their cleverness and worldly wisdom, even that magazine’s writers and editors could not see with any clarity into the future. But neither can any of us…one wonders what readers 89 years hence will surmise from today’s magazines, that is, if our civilization lasts that long.
Howard Brubaker (in his column “Of All Things”) might have spotted something brewing on the horizon, even if it wouldn’t become perfectly clear until Dec. 7, 1941. Here is a clip from his Jan. 28, 1928 column in the New Yorker:
Two other major events in U.S. history, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that would follow, were less than two years away. But this was the Roaring Twenties, and some thought the fun would never end…except perhaps Equitable Trust, which placed this advertisement in the Jan. 28 issue:
Apparently the folks at Equitable Trust weren’t assured of their own financial freedom—after the Crash they would be acquired by Chase National Bank, making Chase the largest bank in the world at that time.
Despite the overheated economy of the 1920s, there still were plenty of poor and unemployed people in the city. One man, Urbain Ledoux (known as Mr. Zero in order to hide his identity), often arranged protests and demonstrations to bring attention to the poor and unemployed, and opened a number of bread lines and soup kitchens to feed the hungry, including the “Tub,” depicted in this two-page illustration by Constantin Alajalov along the bottom of the “Talk” section of the Jan. 28 issue (click image to enlarge).
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Not All Gloom and Doom
Hindsight also reveals the trajectory of the 20th century’s great accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, for example, fueled the imaginations of those who would usher in the jet age and space travel. Just 31 years after Lindbergh’s flight, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) would begin operation of its first transatlantic passenger jet service. And only 42 years would separate Lindbergh’s flight from Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.
Like the rest of America, the New Yorker was an enthusiastic follower of developments in aviation after Lindbergh (the “aerial ambassador” referred to below). The January 28 “Talk of the Town” led with this item about pilots soaring to ever greater heights.
Consider that a mere 41 years separated this…
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While Back on Earth…
Big events in America always seem to involve the appearance of showgirls, whether it is the introduction of a new car or some techno gadget. As this “Talk” item indicates, much was the same 89 years ago…
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A Silent Giant
German film actor Emil Jannings was lauded for his performances on the screen in both Germany and America in films, and he was particularly adept at portraying of the pathos of middle-aged men. The New Yorker disliked most of Hollywood’s output (and usually praised the much-artier German films), so when Jannings landed on these shores he was lauded by the magazine, which dedicated a profile (written by Elsie McCormick) to him in the Jan. 28 issue, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration. Some excerpts:
At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Jannings would win a Best Actor Oscar for two of his 1928 films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. An interesting side note from writer Susan Orlean: In her 2011 book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. The famous dog actor Rin Tin Tin actually won the vote. The Academy, worried about not being taken seriously, gave the award to the human instead.
Janning’s thick German accent would bring his Hollywood career to an end with sound pictures. He would return to Germany, and during the Third Reich he would star in several films that promoted the Nazis. According to Wikipedia, the shooting of his last film, Wo ist Herr Belling? was aborted when Allied troops entered Germany in Spring 1945. Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood.
From the Advertising Department
This advertisement from the Jan. 28 issue caught my eye because Bergdorf Goodman is one of the few stores in Manhattan still operating at its original site:
And here we have perhaps the iMac of its day, standing apart from the competition with its colorful, bold new look…
And finally, this early cartoon from longtime New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow having some fun at the expense of New York’s working class…
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.
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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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:
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.
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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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:
An advertisement in the same issue touted Elco’s “floating home”…
But if you aspired to something larger than a modest cruiser, the Boat Show also featured an 85-foot yacht…
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!”
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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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.
And to achieve those lines, another advertisement advised young women to visit Marjorie Dork…
…who seemed to do quite well for herself in the early days of fitness training…
And then there was a back page ad that said to hell with healthy living…
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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And we close with this post with a peek into the into upper class social scene, courtesy of Barbara Shermund…
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.
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:
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.
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!
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…
The duo were also featured inmore 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.
Coombs concluded the New Yorker “Profile” with these observations concerning Fisher’s personal habits:
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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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:
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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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:
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…
And finally, the ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon featuring the humorous mismatch of rich old duffer and ditzy young mistress, courtesy of Julian de Miskey…
The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.
The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.
The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…
It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…
As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.
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The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.
Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:
Flight of Fancy
In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.
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RIP Isadora Duncan
The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.
Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…
…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:
And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set: