Unnatural History

In my last post we visited the Central Park Zoo, circa 1931, and found a collection of animals displayed as curiosities in barren enclosures that in no way resembled natural habitats.

Aug. 29, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

It’s hard to say if those creatures were better or worse off than their cousins at the American Museum of Natural History, a short walk across the park to the northwest. Unlike the zoo, the tigers and rhinos at the museum were displayed in naturalistic, almost dreamlike settings. But then again they were dead; indeed, all that remained of them were their skins, skillfully fitted over skeletons of wood and clay.

SIMULACRUM…Clockwise, from top left, American Museum of Natural History staff mounting rhinoceros and Indian elephant, circa 1930; preparing African buffalo group diorama; staff cleaning elephant skin in preparation for mounting on a frame consisting of a skull and some wood. This would be covered with clay before the skin is fitted. (vintag.es)

E.B. White stopped by the famed museum to take a look at its new Asiatic Hall, and filed this report for “The Talk of the Town.”

The animals pictured below came from a couple of British big game hunters, gathered during expeditions in the 1910s and 1920s…

PLEASE HOLD STILL…American Museum of Natural History staff prepare the tiger group diorama in 1931. The display was in the new Asiatic Hall referred to by E.B. White. (vintage.es)
SURVIVORS OF A SORT…Nearly 90 years later, the tiger group is still on display at the American Museum of Natural History, now in the Hall of Biodiversity. (AMNH)
STILL THE SAME…This Asiatic leopard diorama, which so impressed E.B. White, also survives to this day, in the Hall of Asian Mammals at AMNH. (atlasobscura)
NEVER-ENDING BATTLE…The Sambar stag diorama, dating to 1911, is also mentioned by White in his article. (atlasobscura)

I am delighted that the AMNH (which I visited in December as an avid fan of diorama art) preserves these exhibits, which not only display animals — many now endangered — but also the artistry of painters, sculptors and taxidermists from a century ago. Sadly, many museums are scrapping these cultural treasures and replacing them with gaudy, interactive displays and video screens. An article in Newsweek (“Museum Dioramas Are as Endangered as the Animals They Contain,” Aug. 2, 2015) notes that around 2008 “the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., closed two diorama halls and reopened them with video screens, interactive features and stand-alone specimens where the dioramas had been.” In other words, the specimens were removed from naturalistic scenes and displayed as stand-alone curiosities, rather like those poor animals in the Central Park Zoo of yesteryear.

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Everyday Icons

Gilbert Seldes profiled industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904 – 1972), who along with contemporaries Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes was among celebrity designers of the midcentury. Like Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss was a well-known Broadway set designer who would go on to become an industrial designer in the era of streamlining. But unlike Loewy and Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss went well beyond mere styling, taking a practical, scientific approach to problems that would not only make products better looking, but also safer and more comfortable to use. An excerpt:

GOT MY START IN SHOW BIZ…Henry Dreyfuss in 1946, and his 1930-31 design of the RKO Theatre in Davenport, Iowa (now the Adler Theatre). (Wikipedia/qctimes.com)
ICONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE…Some of Dreyfuss’s designs included, top row: the Western Electric Model 500 telephone (center), which replaced the clunkier Model 300 (left) in 1950; the Hoover model 150 vacuum cleaner, from 1936; middle row: Dreyfuss designs for the New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train (1936); and the NYC Hudson locomotive for the Twentieth Century Limited (1938); bottom row: Dreyfuss designed things as varied as tractors for John Deere (1960); the Honeywell T87 circular wall thermostat (1953–present); and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera (1972).

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Body-Building Barnum

Another well-known figure of the 1930s was Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), an early proponent of physical culture who would prefigure such notables as Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But none of them were quite like McFadden, who also created a pulp publishing empire (among his magazines: Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Photoplay and the notorious tabloid newspaper The New York Evening Graphic).

READ ALL ABOUT IT…Macfadden’s Evening Graphic was all about scandal, and especially sex and murder.

Macfadden also established numerous “healthatoriums” across the East and Midwest, including (in 1931) his latest venture, the Physical Culture Hotel near Dansville, New York. E.B. White explained, in his “Notes and Comment”…

MCFADDEN SHOWS OFF HIS BOD in 1910 (left) at age 42, and at age 55 in 1923. (Wikipedia)
BEFORE AND AFTER…Mcfadden acquired the 1882 Jackson Sanatorium near Dansville, NY in 1931 and renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel. Circa 1930s images at top contrast with the condition of the property today — it fell into disrepair after MacFadden’s death in 1955, and closed for good in 1971. Known to locals as the “Castle on the Hill” in its heyday, it can still be glimpsed by motorists traveling on I-390. (bernarrmacfadden.com/abandonedplaces.livejournal.com)

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For the Birds

When I came across “Farewell to Birds,” on page 17, I thought for a moment it was one of James Thurber’s animal parodies (there was even a Thurber cartoon at the bottom of the page), but then I noticed our writer was Will Cuppy, (1884-1949) who wrote in the Thurber vein (Cuppy was ten years Thurber’s senior) and like Thurber, was a bit of a curmudgeon. From 1931 until his death Cuppy wrote satirical pieces for the New Yorker that were later collected into books (also like Thurber). Here is an excerpt from “Farewell to Birds.”

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Satirist Will Cuppy (center, in 1932) and two of his early books. How to be a Hermit (1929) was a humorous look at his life residing in a Jones Island seaside shack from 1921 to 1929 (he was escaping city noise and hayfever); How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes was a 1931 compilation of Cuppy’s articles, including the one above.

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Lois Long, newly divorced from cartoonist Peter Arno, concluded her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) by telling readers about her “swell new hairdo”…

HAVE A SEAT, LOIS…The perm room at Charles of the Ritz, 1932.

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Your Majesty

Speaking of new looks, Central Park West was boasting the addition of a new “skyscraper apartment building” called the Majestic. “The Sky Line” reported:

APTLY NAMED…The Majestic at Central Park West. (Pinterest)

Another building making its mark was the Parc Vendôme on West 57th, offering more than 600 apartments with annual rents ranging from $1,100 to $6,600. Condos in the same building today range from $495,000 to $5,495,000.

BREAD BOX INCLUDED…The Parc Vendôme on West 57th. (street easy.com)

From Our Advertisers

Henry Mandel, one of New York City’s most ambitious developers in the 1920s and early 30s, touted the Parc Vendôme in this advertisement…

…I wonder if Lois Long (see above) got one of these “dos” at the Ritz…I love the snob appeal of this ad — “The New Paris Way of Doing Your Hair”…

…which seemed to work…here is a random sample of Hollywood stars in 1931, all wearing the look…

DOING THE WAVE…From left, Tilly Losch, Constance Bennett, and Barbara Stanwyck.

…other ads appealing to the Continental lifestyle…a very understated yet elegant ad for Guerlain lipstick, and Nellie Harrington-Levine gave us a disinterested deb sporting “the wave,” a cigarette and a velvet dress…

…and Pond’s continued its parade of rich society women to sell its cold cream…here we are presented with “Mrs. Morgan Belmont,” aka Margaret Frances Andrews (1894 – 1945), a Newport socialite and prize-winning show dog breeder…

Andrews didn’t limit herself to cold cream, here appearing in a 1927 ad for Simmons mattresses…

Margaret Frances Andrews was a noted dog breeder, seen above at the Newport Dog Show around 1915; below, Andrews had a small role in the 1920 Mary Pickford film Way Down East. Andrews, at left, was credited as “Mrs. Morgan Belmont.”

…and we move on to this sad little ad from the back pages, featuring something called “Peeko,” which apparently mimicked the flavors of Rye, Gin and Rum…it must have tasted awful…

…our cartoons feature Perry Barlow, and I can’t quite tell if this guy is drinking a soda or some bootleg gin, which was often sold at select gas stations…

…a two-page sequence from Gardner Rea

Otto Soglow went fishing…

…and commiserated with a couple of unemployed guys whose plight is ignored by the celebrity-obsessed media…

Alan Dunn hit the lecture circuit…

Kemp Starrett sketched some wink-wink, nudge-nudge at the men’s store…

…and we close with James Thurber, and the trials of our elders…

Next Time: Bonfire of the Vanities…

A Happy Fourth!

The July 5, 1930 New Yorker made a subtle nod to the Fourth of July holiday with this cover by Julian De Miskey. The title images above are of actress Alice White and child actor Jackie Coogan getting into the Independence Day spirit in the 1930s.

July 5, 1930 cover by Julian De Miskey.

On Solid Ground

With massive skyscrapers going up all over the city, some New Yorkers apparently feared that the weight of those buildings would cause the earth’s surface to crack. “The Talk of the Town” offered some factual information to allay those fears:

Not guaranteeing the science on this, but here’s an image I gleaned from Reddit…

Dark gray lines are fault lines (why the brown soil drops in those places). The gray areas are bedrock known as Manhattan Schist, which one can see above ground in Central Park. The reddish brown at lower right is marble. The green area is either gneiss or sill rock.

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War and Apple Pie

E.B. White had some fun at the expense of “Major” Frank Pease, president of the Hollywood Technical Directors Institute, an anti-communist activist organization. Despite the title of his organization, no film director had ever heard of Pease until he began issuing press statements labeling the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front as anti-American and anti-military. White responded:

MINOR MAJOR…”Major” Frank Pease, left, thought the depiction of the horrors of war in All Quiet on the Western Front was anti-American. Pease himself never rose above the rank of private, but claimed he was a retired major in the U.S. Army. (Wikipedia/IMDB).

In one of my recent posts, the New Yorker’s John Mosher reviewed the film, All Quiet on the Western Front.

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Speaking of Un-American

City Hall organizers of a welcome home ceremony for Admiral Richard Byrd — back from his South Pole adventures — arranged to have a woman sing The Star Spangled Banner, but according to “The Talk of the Town,” not just any woman would do…

DISSED…Italian-American soprano Dusolina Giannini was born in Philadelphia, but deemed not American enough to sing at New York’s City Hall for Admiral Richard Byrd. (YouTube)

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Five Alarm Fireworks 

“The Talk of the Town” discussed at some length the challenges July 4 posed to New York’s firefighters. An excerpt:

Also in the “Talk” section, some spot illustrations by Abe Birnbaum, who apparently had returned from a trip to Paris. The first image appeared in the June 28 issue, the second the July 5 issue:

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Just Say No

Helena Huntington Smith turned in a profile on American birth control activist Margaret Sanger (1879-1966). Sanger popularized the term “birth control” and opened the first family planning clinic in the United States. She established several organizations that eventually evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The opening paragraphs of Smith’s profile:

Margaret Sanger circa 1930. At right, portrait for the profile by Ralph Barton.

Controversial 89 years ago as well as today, Sanger remains a target of both the right and left, labeled variously as a baby killer and a racist. Sanger was vocal in her opposition to abortion, maintaining that birth control would not only prevent abortions, but would give many women the ability to control family size and end their cycle of poverty. Sanger also spoke out against racism, but the case is more muddled here: She became involved in the eugenics movement through her belief that society needed to limit births by those least able to afford children, including those deemed “unfit” to raise them.

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From Our Advertisers

From 1920 to 1930, automobile ownership in America nearly tripled from eight million to 23 million. Along with that growth came the rise of oil giants such as Texaco, which in 1928 became the first U.S. oil company to sell its gasoline nationwide under one single brand name. So they had no problem taking out a three-page ad in the July 5 New Yorker…

…while Americans were ready to guzzle gas, British automaker Austin touted both fuel economy and compactness in its American entry…

…for several decades in the 20th century tobacco companies employed physicians to promote their deadly products…Fatima was one of the first…

…the makers of Old Gold, however, were pioneers in associating cigarette smoking with sporting activities and tales of derring-do…here the rapid spread of the Old Gold brand across the country is equated to the record-breaking feats of a young female pilot, Elinor Smith

…I don’t know if Smith herself smoked, but she almost lived 100 years, and flew well into her her 90s…we looked at Smith’s feats in a recent post

Elinor Smith’s flying career would extend from age 16 to her 90s. In March 1930 she set the women’s world altitude record.

…Carl G. Fisher bought a big chunk of the East End of Long Island in 1926 with the intent of turning it into the “Miami Beach of the North.” Fisher would build more than two dozen Tudor-style buildings at Montauk before losing his fortune in the 1929 market crash. This ad appears to be an attempt to draw renewed interest in the development, appealing to Anglophilic pretensions that sometimes afflicted New Yorker readers…

…speaking of Anglophilia, a cartoon by Denys Wortman offered an example…

Barbara Shermund examined an aspect of society’s pecking order…

…and referenced a gay stereotype…

Garrett Price looked in on a misunderstanding at the museum…

Peter Arno discovered that a bite is worse than a bark in this case…

…and Leonard Dove gave us a double entendre courtesy of a mild-mannered building supervisor seeking to remove a draft block (or bung) from a chimney flue…

Next Time: Transatlantic Dreaming…

Prophet of Doom

The October 1929 stock market crash took most people by surprise, but one man, Roger Babson, knew all along it was coming…thanks to Sir Isaac Newton

Feb. 15, 1930 cover by Peter Arno.

Babson (1875-1967) is perhaps best known today as the man who predicted the market crash and the Great Depression that followed. He employed an economic assessment tool called the “Babsonchart” that was based on Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the Feb. 15, 1929 “Profile” (titled “Prophet of Doom”) Henry Pringle tried to make sense of this eccentric businessman, who would go on to wage war against gravity itself:

TOLD YOU SO…Illustration by Hugo Gellert for the profile on Roger Babson, who famously predicted the stock market crash; at right, Babson circa 1930. (Gravity Research Foundation)
BIG THINKER…Roger Babson dedicates the world’s largest spinning globe at Babson College in 1955; at right, the globe as it appears today. Founded by Babson in 1919, Babson College is often ranked as the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the U.S. (babson.edu/Wikipedia)

Pringle concluded his profile on a confused note, wondering if his subject — a product of sober New England stock — could possibly be a socialist in disguise…

In any case, it is difficult to assign Babson to any one category. Some considered him a genius and visionary, while others thought him a crackpot, particularly in the late 1940s when, following the death of a grandson by drowning, he began to wage war against gravity itself. In 1948 essay “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One,” he wrote: “Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles are directly due to the people’s inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.”

That same year Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation to expedite the discovery of a “gravity shield.” The foundation is still in operation, but rather than seeking to block gravity it works to better understand it. It continues to hold an annual essay prize contest — remarkably, five of its winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. The essay contest’s 1971 winner was none other than physicist Stephen Hawking.

ROCK STAR…Clockwise, from top left: Roger Babson at home with a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton; Babson was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1940; Babson provided charitable assistance to unemployed stonecutters in Gloucester, Mass., during the Great Depression, commissioning them to carve inspirational inscriptions on more than 20 boulders near the abandoned settlement of Dogtown. (centennial.babson.edu/Wikipedia)

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An Imperfect Romance

Born in the midst of the Jazz Age, it would seem that the New Yorker would have been a perfect fit for the most prominent chronicler of that era, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was mostly not to be: Fitzgerald would publish just two poems and three humorous shorts in the New Yorker between 1929 and 1937, including “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées” in Feb. 15 issue.

In all fairness, the New Yorker wasn’t exactly enamored of the young author. In its book review section for the May 23, 1925 issue, the magazine singled out three books for review, the first (and longest) review was devoted to James Boyd’s historical novel Drums. This was followed by a brief review of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the reviewer writing that the book revived his interest in the author but “not in a Byronic promise he probably never had,” and referred to the character of Jay Gatsby as “a good deal of a nut.”

The following year Fitzgerald was the subject of a New Yorker profile titled “That Sad Young Man.” In the magazine’s March 12, 2017 issue, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman note that the profile (by John Mosher) would be called “snarky” in today’s lingo. They also point out that “Fitzgerald, for his part, appeared to take a rather snobbish view of Harold Ross’s new publication, referring to the short stories he published in it as “hors d’oeuvres.”

With that, here is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “hors d’oeuvres” … “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées.”

SOUR GRAPES…The Champs-Elysées in 1929; F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter, Scottie, and wife Zelda in Paris in 1925. Despite being products of the Jazz Age, the author and the New Yorker were mostly at odds. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, Fitzgerald advised that she expand her knowledge of literature “instead of skimming Life + The New Yorker.”  (fr.wikibooks.org/AP)

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The Empire-less State

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White pondered the possibilities of a large lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street previously occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Although construction of the Empire State Building would soon commence at the site, White mused about other possibilities…

LIGHT THERE BE LIGHT…E.B. White found the newly excavated space at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (former site of the Waldorf-Astoria) to be a refreshing change. It would be short-lived, as the first beams of the Empire State Building would begin to rise from the site in March 1930. (NYPL Digital Gallery)

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Westminster People Show

Although it’s now customary to retire Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners, back in 1930 a wire terrier called Pendley Calling of Blarney won Best of Show in 1930 and won the title again the following year. Alice Frankforter was on hand for the event, but found the people at the show every bit as diverting as the animals. Some excerpts…

DOGGONE FUN…The 1932 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, NYC. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

REIGN OF TERRIER…Wire Fox Terrier Pendley Calling of Blarney, left, won back-to-back Westminster Kennel Club Best of Show titles in 1930-31. At right, King’s Best of Show win in February 2019 made him the 15th Wire Fox Terrier in Westminster history to earn the top prize. Terriers are by far the winningest breed at Westminster. (aka.org)

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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Robert Benchley struck a pre-emptive pose in his review of a new Broadway play titled Rebound — written by his good friend (and fellow Algonquin Round Table alumnus) Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) — and responded to “a chorus of yawps” that accused him of log-rolling…

A FRIEND INDEED…Robert Benchley (right) said his friendship with playwright and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (left) had no influence over his review of Stewart’s latest play, Rebound. It seems Benchley was in safe territory here, since Stewart’s output was generally high in quality. Indeed, in 1940 Stewart would win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the The Philadelphia Story.

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Georgia On His Mind

The opening of the Museum of Modern Art in late 1929 had a profound effect on the New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton. In the beginning he dismissed the museum as just another place for the old money crowd to throw parties, but with the opening of its third exhibition, “Painting in Paris” — which featured an extensive display of the works of French modernists — Pemberton began to come around to the idea that this new MoMA was a place to see groundbreaking works of art. In his Feb. 15 column Pemberton looked beyond France for signs of talented modernists in the States, and found only one who stood out — Georgia O’Keeffe.

MOD COUPLE…Clockwise, from left, Alfred Stieglitz attached this photograph to a letter for Georgia O’Keeffe, dated July 10, 1929; Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition of Paintings (1919-1934), at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery, 1935; O’Keeffe’s Trees at Glorieta, New Mexico, 1929. (Beinecke Library, Yale/Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)

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From Our Advertisers

Just as hemlines were dropping after the stock market crash, so were the brims of women’s hats — the flapper caps of the 1920s now sprouted droopy ears…

…this ad for Chase and Sanborn coffee featured a weirdly distended image of the writer and humorist Irvin Cobb

…Cobb as he actually appeared, circa 1930…

(talesofmytery.blogspot.com)

…G. Washington coffee, on the other hand, continued to draw from the New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists, including Garrett Price, for its illustrated ads…

…I was surprised to see this ad for two reasons: I wasn’t aware floss was in common use 90 years ago, or that it once came in the handle of a toothbrush…

…and then we have this sad little back page ad (just above a tiny ad for piano lessons) promoting Peggy Joyce’s ghostwritten “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. A former Ziegfeld girl and occasional actress who cultivated fame for fame’s sake, Joyce (1893-1957) was mostly known for her six marriages and extravagant lifestyle. By feeding the media a steady stream of scandals and other adventures (she often received reporters in her bedroom, dressed in a see-through negligee) she remained in the celebrity spotlight throughout the 1920s…

Peggy Joyce in 1923; cover of the first edition of her “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. Celebrated in the 1920’s as a swinging golddigger, her fame quickly evaporated into the mists of the Great Depression. (Wikipedia/Abe Books)

…speaking of celebrity, advertisers were so eager for endorsements of the famous that even “Mrs. Ring Lardner” (Ellis Abbott) got a piece of the action…

…as travel by airplane became more fashionable, automobile manufacturers increasingly paired their products with flying machines…

…for those who wished to stay on the ground, the Pickwick-Greyhound bus system featured “Nite Coaches” with 14 sleeping compartments (for 28 passengers), hot and cold water in each compartment, and hot meals served by stewards…

…on to our comics, I. Klein illustrated the excitement of heavyweight boxing…

Perry Barlow paid a visit to a writer and his dimwitted visitor…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a prep school dance…

Barbara Shermund demonstrated the finer points of beauty…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and one woman’s plan for a costume party…

Next Time: Five Years in the Making…

An Inconvenient Truth

The New Yorker offices at 25 West 45th Street were a long walk from Wall Street, but the panic that gripped the city beginning on Oct. 24 spread quickly through the borough. What the panic was about, however, wasn’t exactly clear.

Nov. 2, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

There was fear in the air, and a hint of doom, when E.B. White submitted his “Notes and Comment” section for the Nov. 2 issue. Having filed his column sometime between October 24 (“Black Thursday”) and October 29, 1929 (“Black Tuesday”), he weighed the mood of his city against the reassurances offered by politicians, bankers and pundits…

TELLERS OF TALES…As the New York Stock Exchange headed toward collapse, President Herbert Hoover, Thomas Lamont (head of the Morgan Bank) and prominent journalist Arthur Brisbane offered assurances that all was well. (Wikipedia/bhg.com)

…and expressed schadenfreude over “a fat land quivering in paunchy fright” and some satisfaction in confirming his suspicions that “our wise and talky friends” on Wall Street really didn’t know what they were talking about:

THEY MADE A MESS OF THE ECONOMY, TOO…Sweeping the floor of the New York Stock Exchange after the Wall Street crash of 1929. (Wikipedia)

It seems White might have believed the worst was over, and that Wall Street would get back to its gambling spirit…

TALES OF TWO CITIES…The Brooklyn Daily Eagle proclaimed panic in its late edition on “Black Thursday,” Oct. 24; however, a day after the “Black Tuesday” crash of Oct. 29, The New York Times offered a more optimistic outlook for the days ahead.

In “The Talk of Town” we find the first use of the word “Depression” in the New Yorker as it is related to the economic collapse…

BIRD’S EYE VIEW OF A BUST…Crowds gather on Wall Street following news of the stock market crash. (mrclark.aretesys.com)

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Mr. Blue Sky

On the subject of stocks, “Talk” also featured this mini profile (written by Robert Coates) of Roland Mulville Smythe (1855-1930), who specialized in buying and selling old and obsolete stocks.  Nicknamed “No Telephone” Smythe for his dislike of the device, he began his trade in obsolete securities and banknotes sometime around 1880…

MARKET GLEANER…Title page of Roland Smythe’s 1929 book, Valuable Extinct Securities. The notation beneath his portrait reads “No Telephone.” (worthpoint.com)

Coates told the story of a Yonkers doctor who used what he thought were worthless stock certificates (from an abandoned coal mine) to paper the walls of his study. Thanks to Smythe’s meticulous record-keeping, when a new lode was discovered at the mine, the doctor learned his wallpaper was worth $14,000 (equivalent to about $200,000 today)…

WALL STREET JUNKER…Share bought by Roland M. Smythe in 1899 and signed by him on the reverse side. At right, unusual obituary headline for an unusual man. (scripophily.org)

…Coates concluded by describing Smythe’s aversion to the telephone, and his talent for bowling…

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Rise of the Machine

Ironically, the National Business Show was staging a big exhibition in Midtown while the economy was collapsing Downtown. James Thurber was on hand at the Grand Central Palace to take in the wonders of the machine age…

NOT MY TYPE…Manufacturers of the Underwood typewriter staged a typing competition at the 1929 National Business Show at the Grand Central Palace. From left are George Hossfield, Stella Willins (with her typewriter “Timmy”), Irma Wright and Albert Tangora. Hossfield, the men’s champion, could type 157 words a minute. The women’s champion — and the world’s champion typist of the 1930s — Willins once typed 128 words a minute for an entire hour without a mistake. She could type 240 words per minute from memorized lines. (oztypewriter.blogspot.com)

…Thurber seemed as impressed by the machines as by the “very prettiest girls” who were on hand to demonstrate them…

LOOKS COMPLICATED…At left, National Cash Register touted its business machines in this ca. 1930 ad; at right, a woman demonstrates a mimeograph machine in the 1920s. (Pinterest)
SHOCK OF THE NEW…At left, these young operators contemplate the operation of an IBM Type 80 horizontal Hollerith card sorter. The woman appears less than thrilled by the mechanical beast; at right, a woman operates a IBM 405 Alphabetic Accounting Machine, ca. 1934. It could process 150 cards a minute and keep track of multiple sums while printing data on continuous-sheet forms. (officemuseum.com/computerhistory.org)

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What a Strange Trip It’s Been

This brief “Talk” entry by Alfred Richman related a story from a traveling salesman just returned from Moscow. Among the highlights of his visit was a Soviet movie that “featured” America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, in the title role…

In the 1920s, silent film stars Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were perhaps the most famous couple in the world. That included in the Soviet Union, where moviegoers preferred American films over their own avant-garde fare (while on the other hand, the New Yorker found Soviet films to be far more advanced than Hollywood’s). While vacationing in Moscow in 1926, Pickford and Fairbanks visited a Russian film studio with director Sergei Komarov, who cleverly captured enough footage of the two to weave them into a silent comedy titled A Kiss from Mary Pickford (Potseluy Meri Pikford). The film was a spoof on Hollywood fame, finding humor in a loveless man’s chance meeting (and kiss) with Mary Pickford, and his sudden and unexpected attractiveness to the opposite sex.

FUN WHILE IT LASTED…At left, Soviet film poster for Sergei Komarov’s A Kiss From Mary Pickford, featuring Russian actors Anel Sudakevich and Igor Ilyinsky (in the center photos) with various cameos by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; at top, Soviet movie posters featuring Fairbanks and Pickford; bottom right, the couple feted by Russian fans, who presented Pickford with the headdress. The year 1929 would mark the end of such films in the Soviet Union — as Stalin began forced collectivization, he declared that Soviet cinema should only satisfy “the basic demands of the proletarian collective farm mass viewer.” Remarkably, Komarov and the actors Sudakevich and Ilyinsky would survive the years of Stalinist terror that would follow, even living to old age. (IMDB/transmediale.de/Facebook fan site)

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Fire and Ice

Back stateside, New Yorker film critic John Mosher took in the talking film debut of the hugely popular stage actress Lenore Ulric (1892-1970). Known on Broadway for her portrayals of fiery women, she tried, it seems unsuccessfully, to bring some of that heat to Frozen Justice, which was set in Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush…

FEMME FATALE…Lenora Ulric, who made less than 20 films, was known for her work on the stage. At left, Ulric taking a break from her Broadway work in the early 1930s; center, magazine ad for Frozen Justice; at right, Ulric as the half-Eskimo Talu in Frozen Justice. (Pinterest/IMDB)

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Right Ho, Plummie (CORRECTION: Not So, Plummie)

I incorrectly attributed this poem in the Nov. 2 issue to British humorist P.G. Wodehouse

…thankfully, an alert reader kindly pointed out that “Ode to Peter Stuyvesant” isn’t by Wodehouse, but by another person with the initials PGW — Philip G. Wylie.

HE COULD BE FUNNY, TOO…Short story writer, screenwriter and satirist Philip G. Wylie in an undated photo. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with the back pages, where toaster wars were being waged by the makers of the “Toastmaster” and Thomas Edison’s “Automaticrat”…

…for some in the posh set, the days of fine dining at places like Maillard’s (with this all-French ad) would be coming to an end thanks to the market crash…actually, Maillard’s itself would come to an end in the 1930s, thanks to the Depression…

…stage, film (and later television) actress and dancer Queenie Smith was the latest celeb to tout the wonders of Lux Toilet Soap…

Queenie Smith circa 1930. (IMDB)

…here’s an unusual way to sell shock absorbers…I’m wondering if this is supposed to be a sugar daddy and a chorus girl trying to make hay in the back seat of a car without Houdaille shocks…

…a couple more ads from the back pages, the ones on the left appeal to women’s fitness, while the ad on the right tries its best to push a product that was fast going the way of the horse and buggy. Spats — devised in the late 19th century to protect one’s shoes and socks — went out of fashion in the 1930s, no doubt because most streets were now paved and you didn’t have to worry about a passing wagon splashing mud and horseshit all over your shoes and ankles…

…and indeed, now you could have Goodrich Zippers, in smart new colors…

…and speaking of colors, a couple of richly toned ads for Arrow Shirts…

…and Camel cigarettes…

…on to our illustrators and cartoonists…spot drawings — sprinkled throughout the magazine — were often a foot in the door for aspiring contributors (Peter Arno and Charles Addams are just two examples). Below is a collection of spot drawings from the Nov. 2 issue, mostly from established artists including Barbara Shermund, Alice Harvey, Julian De Miskey, Gardner Rea, Johan Bull and I. Klein. The New Yorker also recycled old cartoons for spots, including the illustration below (third row, second one down) by Shermund of the young woman on telephone, which originally appeared in the July 16, 1927 issue with the caption, “Hold the line a minute, dear—I’m trying to think what I have on my mind.”

Arno continued to provide illustrations for Elmer Rice’s serialized novel, A Voyage to Purilia

…and Julian De Miskey illustrated G. Marston’s entry for the ongoing “That Was New York” column…

…our cartoons come from Barbara Shermund

Gardner Rea, having a political moment…

…for reference, a photo of Mayor Jimmy Walker

/brookstonbeerbulletin.com

Shermund again, on the joys of parenthood…

Peter Arno’s take on Jazz Age chivalry…

…and perhaps the timeliest entry of all, from Leonard Dove

Next Time: Not Much to Cheer About…

 

Georgia on My Mind

Although artist Georgia O’Keeffe has long been celebrated for her desert imagery and interpretations of natural forms, during the 1920s her heart was very much in New York City.

July 6, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

And New York City was where it all began for O’Keeffe (1887-1986). In January 1916, the famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was shown a portfolio of charcoal drawings by O’Keeffe’s friend, Anita Pollitzer. Stieglitz was so impressed that he immediately made plans to exhibit the drawings—without O’Keeffe’s permission. The longtime art critic for the New Yorker, Robert Coates, told the story in the opening lines of his July 6 profile piece on the artist:

O’Keeffe moved from Texas to New York in 1918, and she and Stieglitz would marry in 1924, a marriage that would last until his death in 1946 (despite the fact he took a longtime lover, 22-year-old Dorothy Norman, in 1927).

TWO OF A KIND…Alfred Stieglitz, left, photographed by Paul Strand at Lake George, New York, in 1929. Exhausted and depressed, Stieglitz had retreated to the lake for the summer after learning that his exhibition space in the Anderson Galleries, which he called “The Room,” would be demolished along with the gallery building.  ∞  Center, a photo Stieglitz had attached to a July 10, 1929 letter to O’Keeffe, who had begun spending summers painting in New Mexico. Below the photograph he wrote, “I have destroyed 300 prints to-day. And much more literature. I haven’t the heart to destroy this…”    O’Keeffe in a 1929 photograph by Stieglitz, after her return from New Mexico. (aperture.org/Yale Beinecke Library/flashbak.com) click to enlarge

Following O’Keeffe’s first exhibition at the 291 gallery, Stieglitz established a firm hold over the display and sale of her work:

During the 1920s O’Keeffe found much inspiration on the streets of Manhattan, and particularly in the proximity of the Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. The Shelton, which opened in Midtown in 1924 as the tallest hotel in the world, provided a perfect vantage point for O’Keeffe to observe city life:

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER…Georgia O’Keeffe was captivated by her adopted city, particularly views from and around New York’s Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. Top row, from left: New York Street with Moon (1925)  ∞  New York Street No. 1 (1926)  ∞  Shelton Hotel New York No. 1 (1926)    The Shelton with Sunspots (1926)    East River From the Shelton (1926)  ||  Bottom row, from left: New York Night (1929)    Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927)    East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel (1928)  ∞  Ritz Tower, Night (1928). (museothyssen.org/okeeffemuseum.org/curiator.com/virginia.edu/isak.typepad.com/ theartstack.com (2)/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/artnet.com) click to enlarge

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During the early decades of the 20th century Martin Couney (1870-1950) was renowned for his baby incubator exhibits at various world’s fairs and for his long-standing display of incubating babies at New York’s Coney Island, wedged between the usual sideshow attractions of freaks and burlesques. Couney charged visitors 25 cents to view the infants (in order that their parents would not have to pay for their medical care). “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Couney…

I’M NOT A DOCTOR. I JUST PLAY ONE IN REAL LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Incubator display building on Coney Island circa 1920s; Martin Couney with babies in undated photo; Couney’s early infant incubators in operation at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, 1898; the infant Beth Allen in a Coney Island incubator, 1941. (NPR/New York Public Library Digital Collections/Beth Allen)

Although many physicians at the time reviled Couney as a showman and a quack (he was most likely not a trained medical doctor), he nevertheless saved the lives of thousands of infants who would have died if left to the care of hospitals that were slow to catch on to this lifesaving device (they weren’t widely adopted until after Couney’s death in 1950). The “Talk” article credited Couney for saving “about six thousand lives.” Many of those babies went on to live long and healthy lives:

SEEING IS BELIEVING…Beth Allen (pictured, at left, in 2016, and as an infant in the photo montage above) was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941. Her mother initially rejected putting Beth in one of Couney’s Coney Island incubators, but her father persuaded Martin Couney to talk to his wife, who acquiesced. At right, Lucille Horn (pictured with daughter Barbara in 2015) was given little hope by doctors when she was born premature in 1920. The hospital staff told her father that they didn’t have a place for her, and that she had no chance of survival. Nevertheless, her father grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab and took her to Couney’s infant exhibit at Coney Island. Barely 2 pounds in 1920, she lived to age 96. (AP/NPR StoryCorps)

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The Electric Company

The 1920’s saw an explosion of labor-saving electric appliances, ranging from electric fans and irons to vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. The decade also saw a massive proliferation of electric lights, and the huge power plants that would be needed to keep everything running. “Talk” looked in on the Edison Company’s East River power plant to see how it all worked:

STILL HUMMING…Edison’s East River power plant (now ConEd), entered service in 1926 and is still in operation today (with a number of updates and additions over the years). At right, a 1920s view of the Broadway lights (newtownpentacle.com/Museum of the City of New York)

The opening of the Edison plant on the East River was a big deal in 1926. According to the ConEd website, “the six-story boilers installed at Fourteenth Street and East River were so large that a luncheon for nearly 100 people was served inside one of them before the renovated station went into operation… during the opening day ceremony in 1926, Queen Marie of Rumania flipped the switch to start the 100,000 horsepower turbine generator.”

“Talk” also offered some interesting insights into the plant’s complex operations, including an unusual storm warning system:

YOU GET THE IDEA…A Philadelphia Electric Company control room in the 1920s. New York’s was undoubtedly much larger. (IEEE Computer Society)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Fleischmann Yeast was a regular advertiser in the New Yorker for a good reason: Raoul Fleischmann (of the New York yeast and baking giant) hated the baking business but loved hanging out with the Algonquin Round Table crowd, which included New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. When the fledging magazine nearly went belly up in 1925, Fleischmann kicked in the money (and on a number of occasions thereafter) to keep it going. Hence the “free” advertising he received for his product, touted not as a baking aid, but rather as a cure for constipation and other intestinal turmoils. In this ad, a physician who “treated German Royalty” endorsed the generous consumption of yeast cakes…

…a  footnote on the Fleischmann ad: Dr. Kurt Henius (1882-1947) was a doctor of medicine and a professor on the Friedrich-Wilhelms (now Humboldt) University medicine faculty at the Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany. Because he was Jewish, he was dismissed from the university in 1935, and in 1939 he fled from the Nazis to safety in Luxembourg, where he died in 1947.

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During prohibition we see plenty of ads in the New Yorker for ginger ale and sparkling water, but this one for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer caught my eye. This is, of course, “near-beer,” with an alcohol content of 0.5%…

According to Forbes magazine, the few breweries that managed to survive during Prohibition made everything from ceramics and ice cream to the barely alcoholic near beer. Pabst also turned to making cheese, which was aged in the brewery’s ice cellars. The brand, “Pabst-ett,” was sold to Kraft in 1933 at the end of Prohibition…

(Courtesy Pabst Blue Ribbon)

…and this colorful ad comes courtesy of Texaco. Did you ever see two young people more enamored with petroleum products?…

…before we get to the comics, here is a two-page illustration in the July 6 issue by Constantin Alajalov (click to enlarge)…

…this peek into the world of trolley car conductors appears to be by Reginald Marsh

…and finally, Peter Arno revealed the thankless work of one stuntman…

Next Time: Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany…

 

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

 * * *

He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

 * * *

Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

* * *

Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…

 

This Thing Called Baseball

In the early years of the New Yorker, baseball as a sport was almost entirely ignored by the magazine, which otherwise gave exhaustive coverage to polo, yacht racing, tennis, and golf. There were also articles on badminton, rowing, and even auto racing, and college football received a lot of enthusiastic ink. But none for baseball. With the Sept. 22, 1928 issue I think I finally understand why.

Sept. 22, 1928 issue by Adolph K. Kronengold.

It has to do with the New Yorker’s parochial view of the world, so aptly illustrated by Saul Steinberg on the magazine’s March 29, 1976 cover, in which anything beyond the Hudson was essentially terra incognita:

A lot of New York Yankee fans came from “out there,” according to James Thurber in a “Talk of the Town” segment titled “Peanuts and Crackerjack.” Thurber wrote of his experience at a pennant race game between the Yankees and the Philadelphia A’s. The game of baseball was described as something for the out-of-towners who were “a bit mad,” a mass spectacle in which the game itself was of minor importance. In short, it wasn’t cool to be a Yankees fan if you counted yourself among Manhattan’s smart set:

This “Talk” item was written when the Yankees were on the verge of winning their second consecutive World Series championship over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The 1928 team featured the famed “Murderer’s Row” lineup with the likes of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. In all, nine players from the ’28 team would be elected to the Hall of Fame, a major league record. But as of the Sept. 22 issue neither the 1927 or ’28 Yankees merited a line in the New Yorker’s sports pages.

ONE FOR THE OUT-OF TOWNERS…The Yankees’ Earle Combs leads off with base hit against the Philadelphia A’s in a key AL pennant race game on Sept. 9, 1928. A record crowd of 85,265 attended the game, won by the Yankees, who gained half-game lead over the A’s with the victory. (baseballhistorycomesalive.com)

Thurber wrote that one could learn much about those in attendance at the game by the way they received Yankee star Babe Ruth:

Thurber proved his point about out-of-towners by noting the origin of license plates in the “army of parked cars” outside of the stadium. He also noted the appearance in the game of an ancient Ty Cobb, who hit a weak fly ball while a few old-time fans looked on in reverence:

A GAME WAS PLAYED, TOO…Babe Ruth celebrated the Yankees 1928 World Series win by dressing as a cowboy and riding the hood of a car. To the left is fellow slugger Lou Gehrig. (sbnation.com)
WHERE YOU COULD READ ALL ABOUT IT…The Oct. 10, 1928 edition of the Daily News splashed its front page with photographs of the Yankee’s triumphant title win. (NY Daily News)

 *  *  *

An Eye-dropping Art Collector

The Sept. 22 issue A.H. Shaw profiled “De Medici in Merion” Dr. Albert Barnes, who made his fortune by developing in 1901 (with German chemist Hermann Hille) a silver nitrate-based antiseptic marketed as Argyrol. In the days before antibiotics, Argyrol was used to treat eye infections and prevent newborn infant blindness caused by gonorrhea. The profile featured this rather fearsome illustration by Hugo Gellert:

The lengthy piece detailed Barnes’ coming of age, and how his promotion of Argyrol helped bankroll his famed art collection. A brief excerpt:

IT FUELED A FORTUNE…Invented in 1901, Argyrol eye drops would finance one of the world’s greatest private art collections. Although was no longer marketed in U.S. after 1996, it is still available today, as seen at right in this Vietnamese product. (todocoleccion / ydvn.net)
HMMM, THAT LOOKS FAMILIAR…Henri Matisse views his 1917 painting The Music Lesson during a 1933 visit to the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion Township, near Philadelphia. (The Morgan Library & Museum)
HE LIKED DOGS, TOO…Dr. Albert Barnes and his dog Fidèle with Matisse’s Red Madras Headdress, in 1942. (Barnes Foundation Archives)

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A One-eyed Monster Comes to Life

It’s always interesting to note the mentions of emerging technology in the early New Yorker, including this bit in Howard Brubaker’s column “Of All Things” about the successful broadcast of a “radio-television play.” Brubaker mused about what this new invention might called:

The first television broadcast in July 1928 was not exactly must-see TV. For two hours a day, General Electric’s experimental station W2XB broadcast the image of a 13-inch paper mache Felix the Cat, simply rotating on a turntable.

THE DAYS BEFORE VIAGRA ADS…A 13-inch Felix the Cat figure (top) was used to test an early television broadcast from General Electric’s experimental station W2XB in Schenectady, N.Y. Rotating on a record player turntable, the Felix figure was broadcast using a mechanical scanning disk, and was received as a 2-inch high image (below left) on an electronic kinescope. At bottom right, a 1928 television from General Electric that received alternating sound and picture. (NBC / Imgur / tvhistory.tv)

Then on September 11, 1928, W2XB (with WGY radio providing audio) broadcast a 40-minute one-act melodrama, The Queen’s Messenger. Northern State University’s Larry Wild writes that because TV screens were so small, only an actor’s face or hands could be shown. “The play had only two characters. A female Russian spy and a British Diplomatic Courier. Four actors were used. Two for the character’s faces, and two for their hands.”

The Queen’s Messenger was the first television drama, received by 3-inch televisions (most likely similar to the General Electric Octagon TV set pictured at left) that were set up in various places in the New York City area. At right, actors on the set of The Queen’s Messenger. The crude, flickering image marked the beginning of a revolution. (General Electric)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisers were always looking for clever angles to capture the attention of the New Yorker’s upscale readers, including the use of subtle and not-so-subtle racist cues to get their points across. Two examples from the Sept. 22 issue have the makers of Oshkosh trunks helpfully pointing out that their product is not intended for African “natives”…

…or the folks from Longchamps restaurants, who depict the joyless life of a blubber-eating Eskimo as an appropriate juxtaposition to the succulent delicacies awaiting readers at their five New York locations:

We might associate rumble seats with the carefree joys of the Roaring Twenties, but in reality passengers in these jump seats received little protection from the elements (or flying gravel), and the ride was no doubt jarring atop the rear axle. No wonder you needed a special coat:

Our cartoons for Sept. 22 include this whimsy from Gardner Rea

…and this cartoon by Al Frueh, which depicts the deserted surroundings of the Flatiron Building on Yom Kippur. Robert Mankoff, who served as the New Yorker’s cartoon editor from 1997 to 2017, observed in the Cartoon Desk (Sept. 26, 2012) that “the rapid growth of Jewish-owned businesses in New York made the cartoon relevant in a way that it’s not today. Through modern, politically correct eyes, the cartoon may seem anti-Semitic, but I don’t see it that way. It just depicts the reality of those times, exaggerated for comic effect.”

Next Time: The Tastemakers…

 

The Russians Are Coming

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.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

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:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

 *  *  *

Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

*  *  *

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.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

 *  *  *

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.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

Blind Justice

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 New Yorker.

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.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

 *  *  *

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.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
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:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…

Man About Town

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.

May 19, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

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:

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!…Mayor Walker accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
QUEEN FOR A DAY…Mayor Walker (in top hat) welcomes Queen Marie of Romania on the steps of City Hall in October 1926. Huge and enthusiastic crowds braved the rain to welcome the queen to the city. (Acme Newspapers)
GOOD SPORT…Mayor Jimmy Walker presides over the first shot in the city’s annual marble tournament on June 3, 1928. (New York Times)

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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.

KEEPING TIME…Museum of the City of New York (abigailkirsch.com)

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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.

SIGN OF THE TIMES…Now a yoga and pilates studio…Scheffel Hall at 190 Third Avenue in the Gramercy Park as it appeared in 2009. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1997. (Steve Minor)

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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:

KEEPING IT DECENT…The actress Betty Starbuck, circa 1930. (CondeNast)

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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”…

HANGING IN THERE…Marion Byron and Buster Keaton in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (Virtual History)

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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.

May 26, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

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.

REFLECTING GLORY…Thornton Wilder returning to the U.S. on the S.S. Britannic, 1935. (thorntonwilder.com)

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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” of Glen 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.

The Glen Springs Hotel at Watkins Glen, NY. It remained a noted landmark of the area until it was demolished in 1996. (nyfalls.com)

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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…

Next Time: Toward the Air…

 

Broadway Soap Stars

Lux Toilet Soap was launched in the United States in 1925 by its British parent company, Lever Brothers, which had been making soap since 1899. To capture the hearts and pocketbooks of American women, the company launched an advertising blitz that featured advertisements in a number of magazines including the New Yorker.

We look at two issues this week: March 17, 1928 cover by Peter Arno / March 24, 1928 cover unsigned, probably by Ilonka Karasz.

The earliest ads appealed to upscale women who saw the French as arbiters of taste and style. In the following Lux ad (from the Feb. 5, 1927 New Yorker), note that every paragraph and headline includes the words France or French:

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The big blitz came in 1928, when Lux pioneered the use of female celebrity endorsements on a mass scale. The campaign focused more on the roles played by Broadway and movie stars than on the product itself. The March 24, 1928 issue of the New Yorker featured these ads splashed across two center spreads.

The captions I have provided below the ads give brief information on each actress. Note that many of these actresses did stints with Broadway’s popular Ziegfeld Follies. Most also had long lives, including Mary Ellis, who lived in three centuries, sang with Caruso, and died at age 105.

Click Images to Enlarge

LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: Marilyn Miller (1898-1936) was one of Flo Ziegfeld’s top talents and one of the most popular Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and 30s; Ada May (1896-1978), a theater actress most of her career, in 1927 played a lead role in Ziegfeld’s Rio Rita; Mary Eaton (1901-1948) was a leading stage actress, singer and dancer in the 1910s and 20s. She was featured in three editions of the Ziegfeld Follies; Helen Morgan (1900-1941) was considered the quintessential torch singer. A draped-over-the-piano look became her signature while performing at Billy Rose’s Backstage Club in 1925. She performed with Ziegfeld Follies in 1931; Helen Hayes (1900-1993) was called “the First Lady of American Theater.” Her awards included the EGOT– an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony; Adele Astaire (1896-1981) was part of popular act with her brother, Fred. After the 1931 Broadway revue The Band Wagon she retired to marry Lord Charles Cavendish and moved to Ireland’s Lismore Castle; Violet Heming (1895-1981) was a dependable Broadway star with many theatrical credits; Hungarian-born Mitzi Hajos (1889-1970) specialized in musical comedy but faded from acting in midlife; Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990) got her start as a model and “Ziegfeld Girl” before going on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. She made 85 films in 38 years before turning to TV; Madge Kennedy (1891-1987) appeared in dozens of films from Baby Mine (1917) to Marathon Man (1976). She had a recurring role on TV’s Leave it to Beaver as Aunt Martha; Nydia d’Arnell was a musical comedy actress. Almost no record of her after 1928. She died in 1970.
FROM LEFT TO RIGHT, TOP TO BOTTOM: June Walker (1900-1966) was the first actress to portray Lorelei Lee in 1926’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Mostly stuck to the stage; Mary Lawlor, (1907-1977) was active on Broadway 1922-32; Judith Anderson (1897-1992), later awarded British title of Dame, was considered one of the world’s greatest classical stage actors; Mary Ellis (1897-2003) was star of the stage (including opera with Caruso) as well as radio, TV and film. Best known for musical theater, she performed into the 1990s and died at age 105; Wilda Bennett (1894-1967) was a Broadway musical comedy star in the 1920s whose career quickly faded. Appeared in 9 films between 1914 and 1941, mostly uncredited; Polly Walker (1904-1983) also faded quickly from the stage in the early 1930s, appearing in just 2 films; Mary Nash, (1884-1976) was a noted stage actress best known for two Shirley Temple films. Played Katharine Hepburn’s mother in 1940’s The Philadelphia Story; Norma Terris (1904-1989) had a long career as a performer and musical theater supporter. Last surviving adult actor from original 1927 production of Show Boat; Vivienne Segal’s (1897-1992) career was mostly in musical theater, including the 1924-25 Ziegfeld Follies. She appeared in a few films in the 1930s, as well as on TV in the 50s and 60s. Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) was a Hollywood leading lady for more than two decades. Won an Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night; Vivian Martin (1893-1987) appeared in 44 silent films in the teens and twenties before returning to the stage; Dorothy Peterson (1897-1979) made her screen debut in Mothers Cry (1930), a drama that required the 29-year-old to age three decades. She was typecast in careworn maternal roles for the rest of her career; Sylvia Field (1901-1998) enjoyed a long career on stage, screen, and TV. Best known for playing Martha Wilson on TV’s Dennis the Menace; Jeanette MacDonald (1903-1965), an influential soprano best remembered for 1930s musical films with Maurice Chevalier and Nelson Eddy.
ADELE AGAIN…In the March 31 issue of the New Yorker Lux followed up with this ad featuring Adele Astaire all by herself.

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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…

STAR POWER…Lux ads from 1954, 1956 and 1959 featuring, respectively, Audrey Hepburn, Debbie Reynolds and Sophia Loren. (Pinterest)

A final note. Lever Brothers began selling Lux soap in India in 1909, years before it was introduced in the U.S., and through the decades Bollywood actresses were prominently featured in their advertising…

NEW AGE…Bollywood Star Katrina Kaif in a 2010 Lux advertisement. (afaqs.com)

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Meanwhile, back on earth…

The March 17, 1928 “Talk of the Town” marveled at the rising structure between Madison and Park avenues that would become the New York Life Building. Designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building, its gilded roof, consisting of 25,000 gold-leaf tiles, remains an iconic Manhattan landmark.

From 1837–1889, the site was occupied by the Union Depot, a concert garden, and P.T Barnum’s Hippodrome. Until 1925, the site housed the first two Madison Square Gardens, a memory that lingered amidst the city’s rapidly changing skyline…

ETHEREAL…The New York Life Building shortly after its completion in 1928. (Museum of the City of New York)
LANDMARK…The gilded rooftop remains a landmark feature of the Manhattan skyline. (Flickr)

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Following the lead of a Roosevelt Hotel advertisement in a previous issue, Macy’s Department Store also called out the New Yorker’s popular nightlife columnist “Lipstick” (Lois Long) in this ad featured in the March 17 issue…

Our cartoon from the March 17 issue explored the hurried life of the idle rich, as depicted by Lois Long’s husband, Peter Arno…

Landmark in Name Only

In the March 24, 1928 issue another building caught the attention of the magazine–a six-story structure designed by theatrical scenic artist and architect Joseph Urban for William Randolph Hearst. The International Magazine Building was completed in 1928 to house the 12 magazines Hearst owned at the time.

An important monument in the architectural heritage of New York, the building was designated as a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988. The six-story International Magazine Building was originally built to serve as the base for a proposed skyscraper, but the construction of the tower was postponed due to the Great Depression. The new tower addition by Norman Foster was finally completed nearly eighty years later, in 2006. It is probably not what either Hearst or Urban had in mind in 1928:

START OF A BIG IDEA…The International Magazine Building circa 1960. (Hearst)
ALIEN INVASION…The 2006 Norman Foster tower rises from the hollowed-out shell of the International Magazine Building. (Benjamin Waldman / Wikipedia)

And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…

Next Time: Conventional Follies of ’28…