Race to the Sky

Almost 90 years after the lights went out on the Roaring Twenties, our collective imagination of New York City still harks back to that time…the sights and sounds of nightclubs and speakeasies and Broadway lights set to the tune of the Jazz Age.

Oct. 12, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

And no wonder, since that decade made the city what it is today. Changing social mores, along with labor-saving electrical appliances and the ubiquitous automobile, altered the tempo of life. And this quickened pace was also reflected in the built environment, old landmarks reduced to rubble while gleaming skyscrapers rose up in their place seemingly overnight. A Victorian edifice like the Waldorf-Astoria — little more than 30 years old — seemed positively ancient to Jazz Age New Yorkers, who unceremoniously knocked it down to make way for what would become the city’s most iconic landmark.

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) sensed that something big was on the horizon with his regular “Sky Line” updates on the city’s “tallest-building-in-the-world” contest. In the Oct. 12, 1929 issue he looked on admiringly as the Chrysler Building’s distinctive dome began to take shape:

IT’LL BE A SURPRISE…The Chrysler Building still lacked its gleaming art deco dome in this photo taken in the fall of 1929. At left is the Chanin Building, completed earlier that year. (adamunderhill.wordpress.com)

Chappell observed that the Chrysler Building’s claim as the world’s tallest would be short-lived, as plans for the Waldorf-Astoria site called for a much taller structure…

DOOMED…The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel (left), completed in 1897, was scarcely more than 30 years old when it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The former governor of New York, Al Smith (inset) led the corporation that knocked down the old hotel and erected the world’s tallest building on the site. Demolition of the hotel began on October 1, 1929 (images at right). In his 2014 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, John Tauranac observes the demolition was an arduous process, as the hotel had been constructed using more rigid material than what was found in earlier buildings. Those materials — granite, wood, and metals such as lead, brass, and zinc — were not in high demand. Most of the wood was deposited into a woodpile on nearby 30th Street or burned in a swamp. Other materials, including the granite and bronze, were dumped into the Atlantic near Sandy Hook, NJ. (New York Historical Society/New York Public Library Digital Gallery)
RISING FROM THE RUBBLE…The Empire State Building under construction in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 1,250 foot (1,454 with antenna) building would claim the title as the world’s tallest. It was something of a definitive victory, as the building held that record for nearly 40 years. (travelandleisure.com)

Although Al Smith’s building seemed assured to win the “world’s tallest” title, another giant was taking shape on the drawing boards…

LAND OF THE GIANTS…City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (left), now known as 20 Exchange Place, was originally designed in 1929 to be the world’s tallest building at 846 feet, but the realities of the Depression brought it down to a more modest 741 feet, making it the fourth-tallest building in New York when it was completed in 1931. At right, the 22-year-old Century Theatre on Central Park West was demolished to make way for Irwin Chanin’s Century Apartments, also completed in 1931. (Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com)

…while we are on the subject of skyscrapers, the New Yorker reprinted this illustration by Andre De Schaub to fill in a space at the bottom of page 54 in the Oct. 12 issue…

…the drawing originally appeared in the magazine three years earlier, as a cartoon in the October 16, 1926 issue. It included a caption: “High position on Wall Street” (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill for helping me track this one down)…

As the demolition crews picked apart the old Waldorf, E.B. White wondered why more fanfare wasn’t attached to such occasions, whether they be demolitions or ribbon-cuttings…

NEEDS MORE HOOPLA…Al Smith with his wife Catherine Dunn Smith, and two of his grandchildren at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building, May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the building by pressing a button in the White House that turned on the building’s lights (it was merely symbolic; they were actually turned on by some unknown maintenance worker in New York). (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

A Novel Idea

My last post featured a brief excerpt of an Oct. 5 theater review by Robert Benchley, who sized up Elmer Rice’s new play, See Naples and Die. Rice pops up again in the Oct. 12 issue, this time as the author of A Voyage to Purilia, the first novel serialized in the New Yorker. The novel was a satire on the silent film industry, set in the fictional land of Purilia. Here is the first page of the piece, with illustrations provided by Peter Arno:

SENDING UP THE SILENTS…Elmer Rice in 1920; his satirical novel about the silent film industry, A Voyage to Purilla, was serialized in the New Yorker in 1929 and published the following year. It was re-published in the 1950s as a science fiction novel. (Wikipedia/Amazon)

 *  *  *

Siren Song

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes trained his discerning eye on the famed torch singer and speakeasy denizen Helen Morgan, attempting to understand the hard-living singer’s allure…

Helen Morgan, circa 1930. (masterworksbroadway.com)

RIGHT AT HOME…Helen Morgan made the draped-over-the-piano look of a torch singer her signature style. (Pinterest.UK)
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY…Helen Morgan (left) as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway cast of Show Boat, 1927. It was her best-known role. At right, Morgan in Applause, 1929. (Pinterest/IMDB)

Seldes struggled to understand Morgan’s appeal, which seemed to draw from an assemblage of personas…

PLUMBING EMOTIONAL DEPTHS…Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, 1935. (IMDB)

Seldes concluded that Morgan belonged with other artistic greats in her ability to create a sense of expectancy…

 *  *  *

The Invention of Distracted Driving

Writing in his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott noted the advent of the car radio, a “new complication” to an “already over-elaborate existence.” Note that Trott viewed the car radio as something to be listened to while parked — car radios were fairly controversial back then, akin to driving while texting today.

EASY TO INSTALL…New Yorker automotive critic Nicholas Trott observed that cars were now being wired to receive radio sets (you still had to buy one and install it yourself). The system above featured battery-powered vacuum tubes, a dash-mounted dial and mono speaker. (hemmings.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

To the refined owner of a Pierce-Arrow, a car radio would have been a crass novelty. After all, your driver was there to drive, and listen to your orders…

…unlike the Pierce-Arrow, which took pride in its heritage, the folks at Chrysler were known for their forward-thinking in design and technical innovation…

…on to some of the back page ads, we find appeals to flee the oncoming winter and escape to the golden sands of Waikiki…note the second ad, and its rather democratic invitation…

…and then we have the ads that hoped to catch the eye of the grasping Francophile, with delicacies from Louis Sherry or mock bubbly from the makers of applesauce…the second ad is particularly heartbreaking, the copy writer trying his or her best to conjure the glamour of Champagne from a bottle of apple juice. Zut!…

…fake Champagne isn’t for you? Well Leonard Dove offers us a salesman doing his best to sell a bottle of mock gin…

…returning to the ads, here’s one more from the back pages that references Harold Ross’s original prospectus for his magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The ad is for Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden, where the art of burlesque got its start. Despite the cheapness of the ad and the implied salaciousness, uptown New Yorkers loved “slumming” at Minsky’s burlesque, including artists and writers (Hart Crane even wrote a poem called “National Winter Garden”). No doubt a few New Yorker staffers found their way inside as well…

Clockwise from top left, Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden; a 1920’s burlesque performer; a ticket for two to the show. (New York Post/Amazon/Pinterest)

…on to the illustrators and cartoonists, a nice street scene by Reginald Marsh

John Held Jr. contributed one of his famed “woodcuts” to the Oct. 12 issue. Held was an old childhood friend of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. It was Ross who encouraged Held to deviate from his popular flapper caricatures — he recalled how his friend had produced clever woodcuts in high school, and wanted something similar for his magazine…

A John Held Jr. illustration for Life magazine, 1927. (Library of Congress)

Peter Arno went behind the scenes at a posh nightclub (a setting Arno was very familiar with)…

Helen Hokinson found confusion at the elections…

Perry Barlow offered up this sweet slice of family life…

…and Denys Wortman illustrated the power of the pen…

Next Time: City of Glass…

Is Sex Necessary?

James Thurber and E.B. White shared an office at the New Yorker that has been described as “the size of a hall bedroom.” This proximity doubtless supported a rich exchange of ideas that coalesced in their 1929 bestseller, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do.

Sept. 28, 1929 cover by Julian De Miskey.

A spoof of popular sex manuals and how-to books that dealt with Freudian theories, the book featured chapters (alternately written by Thurber and White) that delved into pseudo-sexual conditions such as “Frigidity in Men” — the title of a chapter by White excerpted in the Sept. 28, 1929 issue of the New Yorker…

Expanding on the condition known as “recessive knee,” White coined the term “Fuller’s retort,” and claimed it was “now a common phrase in the realm of psychotherapy”…

THE ARTIST EMERGES…Although James Thurber had yet to publish one of his drawings in the New Yorker magazine, Is Sex Necessary? featured 42 of them, including the illustration at right that demonstrated the male greeting posture. (brainpickings.org)

No other editor besides founder Harold Ross did more to give the New Yorker its shape and voice than Katharine Angell, who recommended to Ross the hiring of both White and Thurber. It is worth noting that White would marry Angell in the same month, November 1929, as the publication of Is Sex Necessary? In their case, sex was necessary, as Katharine would give birth to their son, Joel White, the following year.

DYNAMIC TRIO…Katharine Angell (inset) would be instrumental in bringing both E.B. White (left) and James Thurber to the New Yorker. (Pinterest/Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

A New Rabbit Hole

In other news from the world of publishing, “The Talk of the Town” (also largely a product of Thurber and White) noted the publication of a new edition of Alice in Wonderland that featured a re-drawn Alice with bobbed hair and the slender profile of a 1920s flapper. White mused:

NEW ALICE, MEET OLD ALICE…A 1929 edition of Alice and Wonderland featured a Jazz Age Alice (left) as rendered by Willy Pogany. At right, Sir John Tenniel’s original Alice, from the 1866 edition. (comicartfans.com/girlmuseum.org)

 *  *  *

Rise of the Boob Tube

Also in “Talk,” it was reported that the BBC would be putting television on the air “five times a week for a half an hour.” The broadcasts, on a single channel, featured speeches, comic monologues and popular songs. The technology did not allow sound and image to be transmitted together, so “viewers” (there were only a handful of sets) first heard each piece in audio, followed by a mute moving image:

COMMERCIAL-FREE…Early television promotor Sydney Moseley (left) and two employees of the Baird Television Development Co. watch the inaugural television broadcast on a “Noah’s Ark Televisor,” Sept. 30, 1929. The televisor was the invention of British TV pioneer John Logie Baird (1888-1946). (scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk)

 *  *  *

Mutt & Jeff & Peggy

This odd little item in “Talk” focused on the literary interests of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an actress and dancer best known for her lavish lifestyle and multiple marriages and affairs. She was a Kardashian of her day — famous for being famous. Despite her flamboyant ways, Joyce seemed to have some rather pedestrian tastes, at least when it came to her reading pleasure…

JEEVES, BRING ME SOME LIGHT READING…Peggy Hopkins Joyce (left) might have preferred the high life, but her tastes in reading seemed more of the rabble. She is pictured here in her Hollywood debut, the 1926 silent film The Skyrocket. The film bombed, and Joyce made just one more screen appearance before moving on to other things. (Bizarre Los Angeles/mycomicshop.com)

 *  *  *

Ring Cycle

Ring Lardner contributed a casual titled “Large Coffee,” in which he checks into a hotel to escape life’s distractions and get some writing done. The piece consisted of diary entries largely concerned with Lardner’s inability to get a proper order of coffee. He began with an editor’s note that described how his corpse was found in the room, along with the diary. Some excerpts:

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES helped fuel the genius of writer Ring Lardner. (Brittanica)

 *  *  *

Master of the Screwball

Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was known for taking the screwball comedy and turning into something more than a simple farce. Reviewer Robert Benchley saw the potential in this young Broadway producer, whose second play, Strictly Dishonorable, opened to great acclaim:

KEEPING IT LIGHT…Tullio Carminati as Count Di Ruvo and Muriel Kirkland as Isabelle Parry in Broadway’s Strictly Dishonorable, 1929. Producer Preston Sturges reportedly wrote the hit play in just six days. (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

Have No Fear

Morris Markey (1899-1950) often took on the lurid and sensationalist reporting of his day in a column he established at the New Yorker titled “Reporter at Large.” In his Sept. 28 column titled “Fear, Inc.” Markey chided everyone from the newspapers and Hollywood to the headline-grabbing NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, and painted a picture of organized crime that was less violent and glamorous, and a lot more mundane…

MAKE SURE YOU GET MY GOOD SIDE…NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen loved to make headlines with his “get tough on crime” approach. He was was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” (wnyc.org)

Markey suggested that rather than screeching tires and blazing Tommy guns, most of the crime in the city was just the humdrum of making money…

Sadly, Markey himself would meet a violent end, dying of a gunshot wound at the age of 51. It is unclear whether it was self-inflicted.

 *  *  *

The Last Laugh

The year 1929 saw the passing of Minnie Marx, the beloved mother of the Marx Brothers comedy troupe. Alexander Woollcott offered this tribute in his “Shouts and Murmurs” column…

MY LITTLE CLOWNS…Minnie Marx with her sons, The Marx Brothers, circa 1920. (Find a Grave)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Harper’s Bazar began weekly publication in 1867, catering to women in the middle and upper classes. The magazine was a frequent advertiser in the upstart New Yorker, no doubt perceiving a considerable overlap among its readers. This full page ad in the Sept. 28 issue of the New Yorker featured a column by the Bazar’s Paris fashion correspondent, Marjorie Howard

…no doubt the New Yorker’s own fashion editor, Lois Long (1901-1974), read her rival’s column with great interest, and, like the magazine she wrote for, Long was the young upstart compared to the veteran Howard (1878-1958). However, according to future New Yorker editor William Shawn, Long was the superior writer. Upon Long’s death in 1974, Shawn said “Lois Long invented fashion criticism,” adding that she “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.” Here is a brief excerpt from Long’s fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” in the Sept. 28 issue…

OF A FASHION…Majorie Howard (left) served as fashion editor for Harper’s Bazar in the late 1920s and 1930s. Lois Long (right) wrote the New Yorker fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” from 1927 to 1970. (findagrave.com/Vassar College)

…looking at some of the ads from the magazine’s back pages, here’s one from Scribner’s announcing the publication of A Farewell to Arms (a first edition for only $2.50)…

…the back pages of the New Yorker near the theater section were filled with signature ads promoting various entertainments…

…this ad from Kargère referenced an exchange from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray: “They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,” chuckled Sir Thomas…” Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the Duchess. “They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry…

…several ads and filler illustrations from the Sept. 28 issue featured posh folks dressed for fox hunting season, the makers of Spud cigarettes among them…

…this ad from Frigidaire featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose style at the time somewhat resembled Peter Arno’s

…for comparison, an Arno cartoon from 1930…

From Peter Arno’s book Hullabaloo, 1930. (attemptedbloggery.blogspot.com)

and Arno’s full-page contribution to the Sept. 28 issue…

…another artist at the New Yorker who along with Arno often received a full page for her work was Helen Hokinson, here looking in on life at Columbia U…

…and there were artists who were lucky to get any space at all, including Kent Starrett, who probably drew on his own experiences at the New Yorker’s front office for this entry…

…and finally, Garrett Price illustrated the challenges of the “house call”…

Next Time: American Royalty…

 

New York 1965

I’ve always been fascinated by past visions of the future, especially those of the early and mid-20th century—despite the horrors of world war and economic depression, we were still able to envision endless possibilities for human progress.

June 29, 1929 cover by Ray Euffa (1904-1977), who contributed just one cover for the New Yorker. A resident of the East Village, she had a successful career as both a New York artist and teacher (see end of post for another example of her work).

In this spirit, the landmark 1929 Regional Plan of New York and its Environs was created. Rather than planning for individual towns and cities, it viewed them as a single, interdependent and interconnected built environment. Authored by a Regional Plan Association formed in 1922, the plan encompassed 31 counties in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The goal of the plan was to transcend the region’s political divisions and view it more in terms of its economic, socio-cultural, transportation, and environmental needs. The New Yorker made note of the new plan, but decided to take a humorous approach by putting Robert Benchley on the assignment:

Had he actually read the plan, Benchley would have found an ambitious vision for the city in the year 1965, including the remaking of Battery Park that would have included a massive obelisk to greet seafaring visitors to the city (click all images below to enlarge)…

THINKING BIG…Images from the 1929 Regional Plan of New York and its Environs included, clockwise, from top left, a proposed art center for Manhattan, as envisioned by Hugh Ferriss; a proposal for a terminal and office building in Sunnyside Yards, Queens; a proposed monument for Battery Park, from a bird’s eye perspective; and as the monument would appear at street level. (Regional Planning Association–RPA)
HOW-TO GUIDE FOR THE FUTURE…Zoning principles, including setback guidelines for tall buildings (left) were included in the regional plan. At right, a suggestion for setbacks on an apartment group, as rendered by architect George B. Ford. (RPA)

Benchley noted that the plan “looks ahead to a New York of 1965,” and hoped that he would not live to see a city of 20 million people (New York City had a metro population of 20.3 million in 2017; and Benchley got his wish—he died in 1945. He was not, however, stuffed and put on display)…

A BIT MUCH?…Clockwise, from top left, a “monumental building” was proposed in the regional plan as a dominant feature of the civic center, dwarfing the historic city hall; the old city hall today, fortunately backed by a blue sky and not by a “death-star” building; a proposal for the Chrystie-Forsyth Parkway; a “future tower city,” as envisioned by E. Maxwell Fry. (RPA)
THE STUFF OF DREAMS…Clockwise, from top left: The regional plan proposed separation of pedestrians and motor vehicles by assigning them to different levels along the street; ten years later, at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, General Motors would build a full-scale model of this concept as part of their Futurama exhibit; the city of 1960, as envisioned by designer Norman Bel Geddes for the Futurama exhibit; Futurama visitors view the world of tomorrow—a vast scale model of the American countryside—from chairs moving along a conveyer. (RPA/The Atlantic/Wikipedia/General Motors)

Benchley concluded his article with less ambitious hopes for the future…

THE REALITY…A view of New York City’s East 42nd Street, looking to the west, in 1965. (AP)

*  *  *

Another vision of the future could be found in the growing air transport options available to those who could afford it. “The Talk of the Town” reported:

ROOM WITH A VIEW…Interior and exterior views of the Sikorsky S-38 flying boat. (Frankin Institute, Philadelphia/Calisto Publishers)
NO FRILLS…Seaplane ramp at Flushing Bay’s North Beach Airport in 1929. (Courtesy of Alan Reddig)

 *  *  *

With the 1929 stock market crash on the horizon, it is instructive to read these little “Talk” items and understand that, then as now, we have no clue when the big one is coming…

 *  *  *

Over at the Polo Grounds 

As I’ve previously noted, the New Yorker in the 1920s covered every conceivable sport, but paid little attention to Major League Baseball (except for the occasional amusing anecdote about a player, usually Babe Ruth). But even the New Yorker couldn’t ignore the city’s latest sensation, the Giants’ Mel Ott (1909-1958), who despite his slight stature (for a power hitter, that is), he became the first National League player to surpass 500 career home runs.

READY FOR SOME HEAT…Mel Ott in 1933. He batted left-handed but threw right-handed. (Baseball Hall of Fame)

*  *  *

David McCord (1897-1997) contributed nearly 80 poems to the New Yorker between in 1926 and 1956, but earned his greatest renown in his long life as an author of children’s poetry. Here is his contribution to the June 29 issue:

PICKETY POET…David McCord and one of his poems for children. (nowaterriver.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

We find more color in the pages of the New Yorker thanks to advertisers like C & C Ginger Ale, who for all the world tried to make their product appear as exciting and appealing as Champagne, or some other banned substance…

…or for quieter times, Atwater Kent encouraged folks to gather ’round the radio on a lazy afternoon and look positively bored to death…

…while Dodge Boats encouraged readers to join the more exhilarating world of life on the water…

Our final color ad comes from the makers of Jantzen swimwear—this striking example is by Frank Clark, who collaborated with his wife Florenz in creating a distinct look and style for Jantzen…

…indeed it was Florenz Clark who came up with Jantzen’s signature red diving girl. In 1919, while doing sketches at a swim club for divers practicing for the 1920 Olympics, she came up with the iconic red diving girl logo. This is the version of the logo from the late 1920s:

(jantzen.com)

*  *  *

Our illustrations and comics come courtesy of Reginald Marsh, who sketched scenes along the shores of Battery Park…

Peter Arno plumbed the depths of a posh swimming club…

R. Van Buren explored a clash of the castes…

I. Klein sent up some class pretensions…

…and John Reehill looked in on a couple who seemed more suited to land-based diversions…

…and finally, we close with a 1946 work by our cover artist, Ray Euffa, titled, City Roofs:

(National Gallery of Art)

Next Time: Georgia on My Mind…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Queen of the Night Clubs

In the Roaring Twenties, Mary Louise Cecilia—aka Texas Guinan—was the undisputed queen of New York’s boozy, bawdy nightclub and speakeasy scene.

March 23, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

During the 1920s Guinan operated one of New York’s most famed speakeasies, The El Fey Club, which attracted the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker, actors George Raft and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, writers including Ring Larder and Damon Runyon, and gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Mark Hellinger, and Ed Sullivan (yep, the same Ed who later hosted TV’s most famous variety show).

It was still months before the big stock market crash, but in the pages of the New Yorker you could already sense a change in its voice; it was maturing, to be sure, but it also seemed to be growing weary of the party. The magazine’s nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, contributed sporadically to her once-lively “Tables for Two” column (she was now a mother, and would abandon the column altogether in 1930). As for the queen of nightlife, Texas Guinan, New Yorkers were ready for something different.

BEATING THE RAP…In June 1928 Texas Guinan and other New York speakeasy operators were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury. Guinan beat the rap, and was acquitted in April 1929. (ephemeralness york)

In a review of her latest movie, Queen of the Night Clubs, the New Yorker found that Guinan lacked her famed charm and vitality, and that the camera was “not kind to her looks.”

THE FINAL CURTAIN…Clockwise from top left: Texas Guinan in a nightclub scene from Queen of the Night Clubs; trading lines in the film with John Davidson; a 1929 portrait of Guinan by Cecil Beaton; and a scene from the film with co-star Lila Lee (far right). The film is considered lost. (boweryboyshistory.com/texasguinan.blogspot.com)

The film in many ways marked the end of Texas Guinan, not so much because it was a bad film but because she had simply run her course and was going out of style. The market crash later that year was the final straw. She took her show on the road, made an unsuccessful attempt at a European tour, then returned to the States. She made one final film, Broadway Thru A Keyhole, which was based on a story by Guinan acolyte Walter Winchell. Guinan died on Nov. 5, 1933, three days after the film’s release; her death was due to ulcerative colitis brought on by a case of amoebic dysentery contracted during a visit to Chicago. She was 49. One month later, Prohibition would be repealed.

A final note: Queen of the Night Clubs would be Texas Guinan’s final starring role (the film is considered lost), but before she became a night club fixture she was a popular star in dozens of shorts and two-reelers—with mostly Western themes— from 1917 to 1921.

HAPPIER TRAILS…Texas Guinan featured in a movie poster and publicity photo for The Two-Gun Woman, 1918. (Columbia University)

 *  *  *

A Film of Biblical Proportions

The New Yorker’s May 23 film review also sized up the latest epic to come out of Hollywood—Noah’s Ark—a picture with parallel storylines known mostly for its innovations in special effects.

The film premiered in late 1928 as a silent and was re-released in 1929 as a “part-talkie.” It told the story of Noah and the Great Flood, connected to another story featuring cabaret singers, soldiers and espionage during the First World War. Here is the New Yorker’s take on the film:

IDENTITY CRISES…Various promotional posters touted different aspects of the partial-sound film, Noah’s Ark. The one at left promoted the film’s biblical story, while the one at right played up Dolores Costello’s sex appeal. (IMDB)

The New Yorker concluded that the film was worth seeing for the Noah story’s special effects, despite its attachment to a “dreary and banal” war picture.

DUAL ROLES…Dolores Costello (seated, at left) played both a cabaret dancer, Marie, and Noah’s handmaiden Miriam, in Noah’s Ark. Note in the first photo the actress at far left, with her leg propped up on the chair—that’s Myrna Loy, who would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 30s and 40s. As for Costello, known as “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” her greatest success was in the silent era. Click image to enlarge. (1stdibs.com, IMDB)
BIG SHOW…Portions of Noah’s Ark were filmed at the famed Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, including the opening shot that featured a massive ark (top, left) beached on the boulders of the movie ranch’s Garden of the Gods. Other scenes from the film included (moving clockwise, from top right) Paul McAllister as Noah, issuing a warning to the heathen as Noah’s son Japheth (George O’Brien) and servant girl Miriam (Dolores Costello) cower at right; the heathen masses desperately clamoring to board the ark as they are engulfed by the flood (600,000 gallons of water was used in the scene—three of the extras actually drowned during the filming); Japheth carries the rescued Miriam into the ark. Click image to enlarge. (IMDB, Wikipedia, dukewayne.com, medium.com)

Notable about these silent epics is the lack of precaution they took with both the actors and the extras. A huge amount of water—600,000 gallons—was used to film the the climactic flood scene. Three extras drowned and many others suffered broken bones and other serious injuries. One extra had to have his leg amputated. As for the stars, Dolores Costello caught a severe case of pneumonia during the filming.

Here’s a clip to give you an idea of what the extras had to deal with:

Some trivia: John Wayne was an extra in the film, and also worked in the prop department. The director of Noah’s Ark, Michael Curtiz, would go on to direct some of the most well-known films of the 20th century, including The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Angels with Dirty Faces with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca with Bogart and Ingrid BergmanMildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, and White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. He would also direct an Elvis Presley movie, King Creole, and in his final film would reunite with John Wayne in 1961’s The Comancheros.

 *  *  *

While Americans were enjoying epic filmmaking, Russian audiences were being served up the latest in propaganda, although this was propaganda presented with stunning film innovations and avant-garde sequences. In this item from the March 23 “Talk of the Town” the film is referred to as Through Russia With A Camera, but today it is known as Man with a Movie Camera. This experimental silent film from 1929 supposedly documented ordinary life in Soviet Union (with no signs of the famine that claimed 5 million Soviet citizens in the early 1920s). Directed by Dziga Vertov, the documentary’s famed cinematography was by Mikhail Kaufman. “Talk” observed:

AVANT GARDE…Poster for Man with a Movie Camera rendered in the Constructivist style. At right, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman risks his life for a unique camera angle. (Wikipedia)
Clockwise, from top left: Cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman prepares to set up for a Black Sea beach sequence near Odessa; images of ordinary life include a woman at a hairdresser and a young woman fastening her bra; the eye through the camera lens, the film’s final image. (ascmag.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

A sampling of advertisements from the pages of the March 23 issue include this nearly two-page spread for Pond’s cold cream…no doubt Pond’s was thrilled with this endorsement by “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr,” otherwise known as Mary Weir of Davenport, Iowa. Mary was wife No. 2 of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seven wives. Mary and Cornelius were married in 1928 and divorced in 1931…

…and then we have this advertisement from Knox hatters, illustrated by the New Yorker’s own Rea Irvin

…this advertisement for the new Lincoln Building played up the building’s dominating form on Madison Avenue…

…a dominance that continues to this day. I know it’s not cool to gaze up at buildings in Manhattan, but if you’re ever in the neighborhood you must look upward at least once and gaze at the canyon that splits the Lincoln Building’s massive facade…

Lincoln Building, circa 1950. (Museum of the City of New York)

…this Remington typewriter was the closest thing to a desktop computer in 1929…I own one of these and I must attest that it isn’t exactly noiseless…

…this next ad caught my eye because it encouraged people to commit negligent homicide by throwing their product out of a high-rise window…it is also interesting because today Crosley is still a big name in radios and record players, although today’s Crosley is similar in name only. The original Crosley Corporation was a major player in early radio broadcasting, and in addition to manufacturing radios Crosley would go on to build refrigerators, a line of inexpensive subcompact cars and trucks (from 1939 to ’52) cars, and even small airplanes (1929-’36). Crosley ceased as a brand name in 1956, but the name was revived in 1984 by Modern Marketing Concepts. Today Crosley is a leading manufacturer of vintage-styled turntables, radios and other electronics…

…speaking of encouraging ridiculous behavior, some clever marketer at Ronson lighters found a great way not only to sell lighters, but also to encourage customers to waste lots of lighter fluid…

…and then we have this, one of the unlikeliest advertisements ever to appear in the New Yorker—at first I thought it was one of E.B. White’s fake newspapers, but it was actually a two-page spread promoting Davey Tree Surgeons of all things…

…just for fun I am tossing in this illustration by Constantin Aladjalov that appeared along the bottom of a two-page spread…

…and finally, our cartoon from Otto Soglow, in which our subject is either referring to a popular board game from 1929, or a particular sequence in a domino game…

Next Time: While You Were Away…

 

Lighter Than Air

Just a decade after German Zeppelins sowed terror across the skies of Europe and Great Britain, Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin was enthusiastically welcomed by a throng gathered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the massive airship having completed its first intercontinental trip across the Atlantic.

Oct. 27, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

It had been only ten years and two months since German Zeppelins dropped their last bombs on the British, which had dubbed the airships “baby killers” for the mostly civilian casualties they inflicted. Beginning in 1915, Zeppelin raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000 over the course of more than 50 attacks. It must have been a terrifying sight, something straight out of science fiction — flying ships more than the length of two football fields, blotting out the stars as they loomed overhead. Their size, however, was also their downfall, as Britain soon developed air defenses (searchlights, antiaircraft guns, and fighter planes) that shot many of these hydrogen gasbags out of the sky (77 of Germany’s 115 airships were either shot down or disabled).

TERROR IN THE SKIES…Image from a German postcard celebrating the bombing of Warsaw by the Zeppelin Schütte Lanz in 1914. Here’s a weird fact: There was a shortage of sausages in Germany during WWI, since cow intestines normally used for casings were instead used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas that kept Zeppelins aloft. It took more than 250,000 cows to make one airship. (Wikipedia)

So when the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin loomed over the New York City skyline on Oct. 15, 1928, the reaction was one of awe rather than terror. The New York Times heralded its safe arrival on the front page…

(rarenewspaper.com)
The Graf Zeppelin at Lakehurst, N.J., 1929. (rarehistoricalphotos.com)

…and the New Yorker’s James Thurber (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) was on hand to assess the welcoming crowds gathered at Lakehurst, N.J….

…who in their enthusiasm could have easily destroyed the vessel, which had already sustained damage during a storm over Bermuda…

OLD GAS BAG…The Graf Zeppelin arriving at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) on August 26, 1929, during a stop on its flight around the world. (silodrome.com)
Living quarters of the Graf Zeppelin. Cozy, if you could forget that your room was contained within an envelope of highly explosive hydrogen gas. (airships.net)

Dining aboard the Graf Zeppelin. (Top, airshipsonline.com, bottom, airships.net)

Reuben’s restaurant in New York seized the opportunity to cash in on the spectacle, boasting (in this hastily placed ad in the Oct. 27 issue) that the Graf Zeppelin’s passengers dined at their establishment on the very night of their arrival…

A final note: Considering the hazards of flying these ungainly, flammable machines (e.g. the Hindenburg in 1937) Graf Zeppelin flew more than one million miles in its career (the first aircraft in history to do so), making 590 flights (144 of them oceanic crossings, including one across the Pacific), and carrying more than 13,000 passengers — all without injury to passengers or crew.

 *  *  *

Rough Riders

Back on the ground, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on a somewhat less exotic form of long-distance travel — the recently inaugurated coast-to-coast bus service from New York to Los Angeles:

LONG HAUL…This greyhound bus from 1929 was probably similar to those leaving the New York bus stations for points west in 1928. (flickr)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

On the subject of rolling transportation, Buick trumpeted the introduction of “adjustable front seats” in its silver anniversary model. Curiously, this improvement was touted as a convenience solely for women drivers…

Our cartoon (a two-pager) for Oct. 27 comes from Gardner Rea, the latest among the New Yorker’s staff to mock the quality of sound motion pictures. The cartoon is labeled at the bottom: “The Firtht One Hundred Per Thent Thound Movie Breakth All Houth Recordth.” (click image to enlarge)

 *  *  *

If you wanted to get a glimpse of New York’s “royalty” in 1928, you could secure a seat at the Metropolitan Opera, especially one with a view of its famed “Diamond Horseshoe” seats.

November 3, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The “Diamond Horseshoe” described a ring of seats at the Metropolitan Opera House occupied by New York’s social elite. Not unlike today’s stadium skyboxes, the Met reserved these boxes for purchase by the wealthy. “The Talk of Town” for Nov. 3, 1928 noted how many of these were still held by the same families that had secured spots after the Met opened in 1883:

CULTURAL LANDMARK…The Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street circa 1905. (Wikipedia)
A PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN…Leading figures of New York society seated in the Met’s famed “Diamond Horseshoe” section in 1929. (NY Daily News)

“Talk” also noted that some of the boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe were coming into new ownerships among the newly rich (E.F. Hutton) and even (gasp) immigrants such as Otto Kahn:

DUST TO DUST…Above, a view of the “Diamond Horseshoe” at the Metropolitan Opera’s gala farewell performance on April 16, 1966. Below, patrons say goodbye to the old house at Broadway at the farewell performance. The building was torn down in 1967 and replaced by a 40-story office tower. (Life)

Also in the Nov. 3 issue was this comic by Peter Arno depicting one of the Met’s boxes stuffed with overfed toffs:

 *  *  *

Poet With a Green Thumb

The Nov. 3 “Talk” also featured a bit by James Thurber on American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, a major figure in New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene as well as a feminist leader. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (1923), Millay was also an avid gardener who preferred the solitude of her farm, Steepletop, to the limelight usually accorded a literary star:

RARE PHOTOGRAPH…Edna St. Vincent Millay raised her own vegetables at Steepletop, a former blueberry farm located near Austerlitz, New York that she owned with her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain. Photo is circa 1928. (Library of Congress)

Thurber noted that even her publisher, Harper & Sons, had to use an old photo of the publicity-shy poet for a new book release:

On the topic of photography, “Profiles” (written by film historian Terry Ramsaye) looked in on the quiet life of photography pioneer George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film.

A quintessential “mamma’s boy,” Eastman never married…

…and by all accounts died a celibate less than four years after this profile was written, taking his own life at age 77. Suffering from intense pain caused by a spinal disorder, Eastman shot himself in the heart on March 14, 1932, leaving a note which simply read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”

Odds and Ends

Other items of note from the Nov. 3 issue included a humorous piece by Rube Goldberg, “The Red Light District,” in which the president of the Blink Stop-Go Traffic Company summons a doctor to treat a strange malady. The doctor gets held up by traffic lights on the way to the “emergency,” and when he discovers the problem is only hives, he shoots the patient. The piece was headlined by this artwork, also by Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg is still known today thanks to his series of cartoons depicting deliberately complex contraptions invented to perform simple tasks, such as the “Self-Operating Napkin” below, from 1931:

1931 (Wikipedia)

Cartooning’s highest honor, The Reuben Award, was named after Goldberg, who was a longtime honorary president of the National Cartoonists Society.

 *  *  *

The Roaring 20s saw a rapid transformation of the New York skyline, with massive skyscrapers rising from the dust of old 18th and 19th century institutions. But few would signal the new age more than the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco landmark that would stand as the world’s tallest building for nearly a year (knocked from the top spot in May 1931 by the Empire State Building). Architecture critic George S. Chappell (“T-Square”) had this observation about the planned building:

EVOLUTION OF AN ICON…Stages in the design for the Chrysler building, from the July-December 1929 issue of Progressive Architecture.

*  *  *

More from our advertisers…in the Nov. 3 issue Hawaii beckoned well-heeled New Yorkers who were contemplating the coming winter…

…and then there was this poorly executed ad for Kolster radios, the whole point seeming to be the drawing they commissioned from New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno:

And finally, a cartoon by Alan Dunn, who looked in on an Ivy League football huddle:

Next Time: Diamond Lil…

 

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)

  *  *  *

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)

 *  *  *

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…

 

Will Wonders Never Cease?

The early New Yorker was known for its fashionably blasé tone, but its writers were often giddy when it came to reporting on technological advances.

April 14, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

Such was the case with transatlantic telephone service, which before 1927 was the stuff of fantasy. By 1928, the New Yorker marveled at this service by suggesting in “Talk of the Town” that the invention had become matter-of-fact:

The New Yorker correctly prophesied that the telephone’s primary use would be for mundane communications—not much different from how we use smartphones today for selfies, texting and chitchat.

WHAT HO! New York Mayor Jimmy Walker visits with London’s Lord Mayor in a 1927 transatlantic telephone call. The calls were made possible through radio transmission from station to station across the ocean. (NY TIMES)

 *  *  *

Even the first “unofficial” transatlantic conversation, between two unknown American and British engineers, was a fairly routine conversation about the weather and distances between various cities. At one point, however, the American makes this prophetic remark: “Distance doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are on the verge of a very high- speed world….people will use up their lives in a much shorter time, they won’t have to live so long.”

In the same issue, writer Morris Markey gushed about his tour of a radio broadcast facility…

ON  THE AIR WITH MR NEW YORK…A photo of WNYC’s transmitter room on the 25th floor of New York City’s Municipal Building. At left is the founder of the station, Grover A. Whalen, on the phone prior to the station’s opening night ceremonies on July 8, 1924. Whalen described himself as “Mr. New York,” often serving as the city’s official and unofficial greeter of politicians, royalty and celebrities. He served as police commissioner in the 1920s, and later as president of the 1939 World’s Fair. (WNYC)
IN REAL TIME…A live radio play being broadcast at NBC studios in New York. (Wikiwand)

Awed by this technical marvel, Markey described how the station could broadcast its show across the country…

More Evidence Lindy Was Made of Wood

The New Yorker’s reporting on Charles Lindbergh continued with this item in “Talk of the Town” that described a young woman’s dream to fly with the famous pilot. And fly was all she did…

SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP…Charles Lindbergh at home in his cockpit, circa late 1920s. (fbi.gov)

*  *  *

From the World of Advertising…

Lux Soap continued its string of advertisements in the New Yorker featuring Broadway stars of the day. Among them was actress Mary Ellis…

Mary Ellis was an American star of stage, radio, television, film and opera, best known for her roles in musical theatre. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1918, later appearing opposite famed tenor Enrico Caruso. On Broadway she was known for creating the title role in Rose-Marie.

Born in 1897, she died in 2003 at the age of 105. She had the distinction of being the last surviving star to perform in a Puccini opera (while Puccini was alive) and the last star to perform opposite Caruso.

SEASONED PERFORMER…1934 E.R. Richie photograph of actress Mary Ellis. (eBay)

Lux soap wasn’t the only company exploiting celebrities for sales. Cigarette companies also sought endorsements from prominent women to exploit the new and rapidly growing market of female smokers. This ad below from the April 14 issue featured Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, a Swiss-born American socialite best known as the mother of fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and grandmother of CNN journalist Anderson Cooper:

SHE ALSO SHILLED FOR COLD CREAM…Edward Steichen photograph of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt for a Pond’s Cold Cream testimonial campaign, 1925. (library.duke.edu)

In a famous custody battle in 1934, Vanderbilt lost custody of her daughter to her sister-in-law Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the court also removed Vanderbilt as administrator of her daughter’s trust fund, her only means of support. From the 1940s until her death at age 60 in 1965 she lived with her identical twin sister, Thelma, also known as the Viscountess Furness.

In another portrait of the upper classes, Barbara Shermund takes a peek into the drawing room of a less than cerebral hostess…

Next Time: The Last Dance…