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.
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:
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 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:
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):
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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).
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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.
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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…
NINETY YEARS AGO, when former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sat down to write The Front Page, they might have sensed they had a Broadway hit in the making, but probably had no idea their play would still grace a Broadway stage well into the 21st century.
The Front Page made a big splash on the Great White Way when it premiered on August 14, 1928 at Times Square Theatre. Featuring a story about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, the play’s wisecracking, rapid-fire dialogue (which would become a staple of Hollywood’s screwball comedies), was a big hit with audiences, and with E.B. White, who reviewed the play in the Aug. 25, 1928 New Yorker:
White was so taken by the play, in fact, that he found it to be nearly perfect, like a scientific instrument of exacting precision. And considering how many times the play has been adapted to stage and screen (most recently on Broadway in 2016), he was probably right. It still plays pretty well after all these years:
The play was restaged four more times on Broadway — 1946, 1969, 1986 and 2016 — the 2016 production starred Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman. Film adaptions included The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1940 — the latter added a twist to the play by changing the Hildy character to a woman, played by Rosalind Russell as the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant). The play returned to the big screen in 1974 as The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns.
Still Some Fight Left in Him
Although boxer Gene Tunney had retired from the ring, he was still making headlines fighting off a different foe: the paparazzi.
Tunney’s engagement to Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder was front-page news across the country, and photographers were eager to capture a photo of the couple, who up until the announcement had enjoyed a mostly secret romance. James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” described the couple’s attempts to elude a persistent press:
In September 1928 the couple took separate trips to Rome and married in a small ceremony on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, they attracted the attentions of Rome’s original paparazzi: According to the New York Times “the scene after the wedding looked mighty like a riot as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.”
After traveling in Europe they returned to the U.S. and made their home in North Stamford, Connecticut, where they restored an 18th century farmhouse and raised Hereford cattle and sheep. They would be married 50 years until Tunney’s death at age 81 in 1978. Polly continued to live at her home in Stamford until her death in 2008 at age 100.
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Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” signature at the end of the book review section was absent during part of the summer of 1928 as she was recuperating from an appendectomy. Fortunately her rapier wit remained intact when she returned in the Aug. 25 issue…
…where she found the strength to skewer The Lion Tamer, the latest novel by romance writer E.M. Hull:
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Long Before Starbucks
If you were a New Yorker in the 1920s, this cartoon by Rea Irvin would make perfect sense, because nearly everyone knew that Alice Foote MacDougall was the queen of New York’s coffee scene, a one-woman Starbucks of her day.
According to Jan Whitaker, writing for the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, MacDougall kept a carefully crafted persona. In numerous magazine stories crafted by her publicity agent, “she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38.”
MacDougall was actually from a distinguished New York City family, and her coffee wholesaling career began in 1909 after her husband’s death. Whitaker writes: “In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S. She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces.”
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The Friendly Skies
E.B. White made another appearance in the Aug. 25 issue, this time with a poem describing his recent flight from London to Paris aboard an Imperial Airways trimotor biplane. If White seems to rhapsodize a bit here (especially to jaded fliers of the 21st century), it is understandable, considering that White’s flight to France was only 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was still something miraculous:
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Missing the Boys of Summer
The New Yorker continued to ignore the sport of baseball in its pages, even though it enthusiastically covered almost everything else: college football, hockey, tennis, golf, lacrosse, polo, rowing and yacht racing. Strange because the New York Yankees had one of the winningest lineups in baseball (Murderer’s Row, with sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), had won the 1927 World Series, and were poised to win it again in 1928. Unless I missed something, the first mention of baseball in the 1928 New Yorker was this bit in Howard Brubaker’s Aug. 25 “Of All Things” column:
The Yankees would sweep the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 World Series.
From Our Advertisers
This creepy advertisement from the Aug. 25 issue comes courtesy of the Clark Lighting Company. The tagline, “Clark Always Works,” has a double meaning, the ad copy suggesting that a woman is so simple (described here as a “little minx”) that she will be captivated by the very flick of a lighter:
Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who was making light of a diet fad from the late 19th and early 20th century (hence the woman’s age and dress) made famous by Horace Fletcher, who was known as the “Great Masticator” for his diet that involved chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times. The cartoon’s caption reads: “Now masticate, Ermyne!”
Thirty years before South Pacific would grace the silver screen, an earlier film that also explored the clash of civilizations in Polynesia, White Shadows of the South Seas, wowed audiences with its cinematography and, like South Pacific, a melodramatic love story between an American (Monte Blue) and a beautiful Polynesian girl, Fayaway, played by Mexico-born actress Raquel Torres.
Inspired by a 1919 travel book of the same name (by Frederick O’Brien), what is significant about the film is that it was shot in Tahiti, featured a supporting cast of Tahitian islanders, and was the first MGM picture to be released with a pre-recorded soundtrack, which consisted of a musical score and a few effects. It was also the first film in which the MGM Lion (known then as “Jackie”), roared during the introduction.
Leonard Maltin writes the film “features stunning, Oscar-winning cinematography of the Marquesas Islands welded to a story about the corrupting influence of Western civilization, with Blue as an alcoholic doctor who falls in love with native Torres and clashes with an exploitative (pearl) trader…Portions of the beautiful, documentary-style footage were shot under the supervision of Robert Flaherty, who fought with the studio over its emphasis on a melodramatic plot and left the production.”
The film also caused David O. Selznick, one of the top executives at MGM, to quit the studio over a dispute with fellow MGM exec Hunt Stromberg. According to the 1990 book The Dame in the Kimono by Leonard Left and Jerold Simmons,David (Selznick) thought it an idyllic story, Hunt wanted more sex.
Here’s what the Aug. 11, 1928 New Yorker had to say about the film:
Speaking of Garbo, the New Yorker’s film critic “O.C.” was one of the few moviegoers in the world not bewitched by the Swedish actress. In the same issue this is what he had to say about her latest film, The Mysterious Lady:
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As I’ve noted before, The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in its treatment of blacks and other minorities as racial “others.” Here is an example (from the Aug. 11 issue) of the casual bigotry that occasionally could be found in “The Talk of the Town,” this penned by none other than James Thurber:
…and a few pages on in the same issue, this filler art by Julian deMiskey:
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And to close out the Aug. 11 issue, Barbara Shermund looked in on the Uppers during a moment of contemplation:
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The Aug. 18, 1928 issue featured an interesting dispatch from the magazine’s Paris correspondent, Janet “Genêt” Flanner.
Flanner gave us a taste of how the French regarded the recent “Battle of the Century” between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney:
Flanner also wrote about an amusement park near the Porte Maillot in Paris called Luna Park:
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From Our Advertisers
Another sports celebrity who didn’t mind relieving Old Gold of some extra cash was Babe Ruth, who was next in line to submit to the blindfold test:
I include this ad for Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap (from a 1928 issue of The Saturday Evening Post) as an explanatory note for the New Yorker cartoon that follows, by Gluyas Williams…
Also in the issue, John Held Jr. contributed one of his famous maps, displayed sideways, full-page (click to enlarge):
And finally, we close with Peter Arno, and two outraged spinsters:
Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…
…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.
The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.
The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).
In the same issue, writer Robert Benchley also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:
The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:
Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musicalSingin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures.
The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville circuit:
In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:
Paving Over Paradise
In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” Howard Helm Cushman and James Thurber offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:
According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”
By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”
Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”
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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…
…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…
…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…
…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge
And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…
…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).
In the days before air conditioning, summertime city dwellers escaped the heat by fleeing to the countryside or the coast, or, if they lacked the time or the means, by taking their dining and dancing to one of Gotham’s breezy rooftop nightclubs.
In her column “Tables for Two,” nightlife correspondent Lois Long welcomed the addition of rooftop dining atop the St. Regis Hotel, which featured decor by the famed theatrical set designer and architect Joseph Urban:
Illustrations by Alice Harvey (in the July 7, 1928 issue) depicted diners and dancers on the St. Regis rooftop…
Long also fondly recalled a “comic waiter” who entertained patrons of another popular rooftop destination, The Cascades atop the Strand:
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The June 30 issue featured a Profile of cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, who began her cosmetics empire with a dozen jars of face cream. Writer Jo Sterling described a businesswoman of limitless energy whose habits could be described as restless and haphazard but also revealed a woman of great generosity. Sterling noted that this woman of great wealth and a renowned collector of fine art and other rare objects preferred riding the bus to owning an automobile.
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Portents of War (to be continued…)
In the Roaring Twenties most believed the Great War was indeed the “War to End All Wars,” so when militarism was clearly on the rise in Shōwa Japan few took it seriously, including New Yorker cartoonist Al Fruh:
On the lighter side, Peter Arno offered up his take on a cinematic love scene:
Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.
The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).
The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:
The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:
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Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”
It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:
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Then There Was The Other Playwright…
Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.
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Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”
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The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:
In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…
…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…
Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the NewYorker.
In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:
Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.
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Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:
From Our Advertisers…
This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…
…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.
And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:
When Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1926, the city finally had a leader that matched the mood of the times. A dapper lover of music and nightlife, he openly took a Ziegfield dancer as his mistress, often fled the city for European vacations, and was known to begin meetings with the pop of a Champagne cork.
No doubt many New Yorker readers liked the Jazz Age spirit of their mayor, and who really cared about his “accomplishments” as long as the city continued to boom and its smart set continued to prosper? E.B. White, writing for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town,” concluded as much:
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Remembrance of Things Past
Although the New Yorker embraced the spirit imbued in the city’s rapidly changing skyline, there was always a tinge of regret when landmarks fell to wrecking balls and the city erased its past faster than one could comprehend. And so the magazine was a strong and early supporter of the establishment of the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923 and housed in Gracie Mansion (now the mayor’s official residence) until a permanent, neo-Georgian-style museum was finally erected in 1929-30 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets.
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No Beer Left to Cry In
As the Museum of the City of New York scrambled to preserve a past that was quickly being erased across Manhattan, another venerable institution prepared to close its doors for good—Allaire’s Scheffel Hall—which in its heyday was a favorite watering hole of artists, musicians, and writers including Stephen Crane. Allaire’s, located in a Gramercy Park neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or“Little Germany,” was the latest victim of Prohibition; it was, after all, hard to run a beer hall without the beer.
Amazingly, the building still stands, now home to a pilates and yoga studio.
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The “Talk of the Town” had its usual bits and pieces of happenings in the city, including this mild jab at the rather staid New York Times:
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Silent film star Buster Keaton’s latest picture, Steamboat Bill, Jr., won the approval of New Yorker film critic O.C., and Keaton’s co-star Marion Byron received extra props for her “gusto”…
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Truth in Advertising
Outside of politics this is one of the most cynical uses of the word “truth” I’ve ever seen. Since the woman isn’t smoking herself, I’m guessing she is reading a letter from someone (son, daughter, boyfriend) who has learned the truth about Camels and has decided to share it in a letter. How sweet.
In 1928 color images such as the Camel ad above brightened an increasing number of New Yorker ads. Color was artfully used in a number of spots, including the left panel of this two-page ad for a new cosmetic compact…
The issue also featured this comic sketch by Rea Irvin of New Yorker critic and commentator (and hypochondriac) Alexander Woollcott…
…and keeping on the literary side, this comic by Isidore Klein…
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The May 26, 1928 issue the “Talk of the Town” turned its attention to sound in motion pictures, or rather, turned its ears away from the “movie tone” sound effects becoming common in the waning days of the Silent Era.
Everyday sounds, in particular, proved jarring to the ears of those who were accustomed to the relative quiet of silent movies:
“Talk” also looked in on the writer Thornton Wilder, who was planning to summer in Europe with his friend, the literary-minded boxer Gene Tunney.
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More Truth in Advertising
The manufacturers of Old Gold cigarettes were also in pursuit of the truth in this ad featured in the May 26 issue, backing up the claim with a “blindfold test” on none other than the daughter of J. P. Morgan…
Deception in advertising wasn’t limited to cigarettes, however. The makers of Lysol had their own nefarious scheme that shamed women into using their product as a form of birth control (referred to in the ad below with the euphemism “feminine hygiene”). Not only was it ineffective as a contraceptive, it was also corrosive to one’s privates.
The ad is also appalling for casting the responsibility for birth control entirely on the woman. But then again, where are we today?
On to other questionable health pursuits, this ad in the May 26 issue touted the “radio-active waters” ofGlen Springs, a hotel and sanatorium located above Seneca Lake in New York. Searching for oil on the site in late 19th century, the owners struck not black gold but rather a black, briny water that they claimed had greater curative powers than those found in Germany’s famed Nauheim Springs.
Why they called the waters “radio-active” escapes me. There were a lot of quack medical cures floating around in the 1920s—some of them quite dangerous—so I’m guessing that the proprietors of Glen Springs were adding radium to the water in some of their treatments, or maybe just claiming that radium was present in the water. Although Marie Curie (a pioneering researcher on radioactivity) and others protested against radiation therapies, a number of corporations and physicians marketed radioactive substances as miracle cure-alls, including radium enema treatments and radium-containing water tonics.
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And finally, our cartoons for the May 26 issue, in which Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno explore the ups and downs of courtship…
Broadway shows were a popular nightlife diversion for New York’s upper middle-class, but plays and musicals were only part of an evening’s entertainment. The city’s “after theatre” clubs beckoned those who enjoyed an evening of dance with the Astaires or a light comedy with Lunt and Fontanne, but believed the night was still young.
And who better to chronicle the late night revelry than Lois Long, who through her “Tables For Two” column (signed “Lipstick”) was a leading voice of after hours Manhattan and a nightly presence in its various clubs and speakeasies. Longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (Here at the New Yorker) observed that Long, who joined the New Yorker in 1925, “had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play — a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”
In May 1928 Long had been married for about nine months to colleague and cartoonist Peter Arno, who was also a regular fixture of the nightclub scene. But in Long’s column for May 5, 1928, one can detect a bit of weariness setting in, the 27-year-old sensing the next generation didn’t know how to have a good time.
And it didn’t help that the younger people were dancing to “canned music,” what with the spread of broadcast radio and improvements in phonograph records…
For those on the wilder side, Lois Long recommended a number of after-hours entertainments, including Texas Guinan’s latest all-night club, Salon Royal, and its snake-charming hootch dancer.
Because so many New Yorker readers were both theatre and after-theatre-goers, the magazine included some of the after-dinner destinations in its “Goings On About Town” section. Excerpts follow.
A May 5 “Talk of the Town” segment (written by James Thurber) commented on the challenges film crews faced when they shot on location in the city, in this case the production of Harold Lloyd’s latest comedy, Speedy:
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Before Mommie Dearest
The actress Joan Crawford is best known today as the subject of the 1981 biopic, Mommie Dearest, which portrayed Crawford as an insecure, abusive parent to her adopted daughter Christina (the film was based on a 1978 memoir and exposé of the same name written by Christina Crawford).
But in the 1920s and 30s the former dancer and chorus girl was better known for her sex appeal, attractive to men for her looks and to women for the roles in which she portrayed hard-working women who find both romance and success.
The New Yorker took notice of Crawford in its review of Across to Singapore, the critic O.C. noting that Crawford “gets prettier in every picture”…
Another film released later in 1928, Our Dancing Daughters, would make Crawford a star and a symbol of the liberated, 1920s flapper. Even the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would observe that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”
Another actress with a talent for living was 34-year-old Mae West, who was appearing on Broadway in Diamond Lil. Already a 21-year veteran of the stage (she began performing in vaudeville in 1907 at age 14), West was known for writing and performing in risqué plays beginning in 1926, when she appeared in Sex, which was panned by conservative critics but enjoyed hot ticket sales.
Subsequent plays aroused controversy and kept her name in the newspapers, but her play Diamond Lil would become the Broadway hit that would cement her image as a sex symbol, one she would maintain until her death at age 87 in 1980. In the May 5 issue artist Miguel Covarrubias offered his vision of the Queen of the Bowery:
From Our Advertisers
It’s interesting to see how 1920s advertisers made even the most mundane gadgets appear to be vital to one’s survival. The ad for the “Sesamee” auto switch lock is a case in point, appealing to upscale female readers of the New Yorker with this odd scenario in which the gadget enables the driver to avoid the awkward and potentially hazardous situation depicted below, although it hard to see what the actual threat might be from a dandy in a tie and waistcoat. Perhaps death from boredom.
Our cartoon is courtesy of Mary Petty, who would become a renowned illustrator for the New Yorker, best remembered for a series of covers featuring her gentle satirization of the upper class Peabody family.
From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.
Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:
Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:
Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.
According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.
And Then There Were Hearst & Davies
Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.
Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy, even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:
A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”
One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.
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Another Bad Girl
Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.
On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.
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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:
Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.
Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.
Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:
Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.
The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.
In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).
Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.
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Not So Happy Feet
Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.
In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:
Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…
…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…
Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:
In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.
For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.
From Our Advertisers…
We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…
…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).
The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…
…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense
And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…