Robeson’s Othello

In 1930s America there were few if any opportunities for black actors to perform in mainstream stage or screen productions unless they conformed to racial stereotypes. An exception was Paul Robeson.

June 21, 1930 cover by Gardner Rea.

In 1930 Robeson (1898-1976) won rave reviews for his performance in Shakespeare’s Othello. That performance, however, took place in London, not New York, which London correspondent Anthony Gibbs took pains to point out in his dispatch for the June 21, 1930 New Yorker.

English actress Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in London’s Savoy Theatre production of Othello in 1930. Although only 22 at the time, Ashcroft was an established Shakespearean actress. The 32-year-old Robeson was already famous as both an athlete and actor. He was twice named a consensus All-American in football (Rutgers) and was the class valedictorian. He also received a law degree from Columbia while playing in the NFL. In 1930 he was already known to London audiences, having previously appeared in a 1928  London production of the American musical Show Boat. (theshakespeareblog.com)
CENTER STAGE…Left to right: Maurice Browne (Iago), Paul Robeson (Othello) and Peggy Ashcroft (Desdemona) in Othello at the Savoy Theatre, 1930. Maurice Browne was also the play’s producer; his over-the-top portrayal of Iago and his wife’s incompetent stage direction hurt the production, but Robeson nevertheless received high praise for his performance. (britishstageandscreen.tumblr.com)

Although the performance was a triumph for Robeson, the production itself was a mess. The play’s producer, Maurice Browne, enlisted his wife, Ellen van Volkenburg, to direct (Peggy Ashcroft later called her “a pretentious dud”). Writing in The Guardian (Sept. 3, 2003), Samantha Ellis observes: “Recognising that his Othello transcended the ropey production, the audience gave Robeson 20 curtain calls. He reprised the role all over the world and never lost his pleasure in it. For Robeson, it was more than just a part: it was, as he once said, “killing two birds with one stone. I’m acting and I’m talking for the negroes in the way only Shakespeare can.”

Robeson’s Othello would not make it to New York until 1943. It would run for almost 300 performances, setting an all-time record run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway.

 *  *  *

Restoring Order

In the aftermath of Grover Whalen’s disastrous (and sometimes violent) run as New York City Police Commissioner, E.B. White and his fellow New Yorkers welcomed the steady hand of Edward P. Mulrooney (1874-1960) to the helm:

THE COMMISH…Edward P. Mulrooney in a 1930s portrait by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

 *  *  *

The Commander

American author and lecturer Virgilia Peterson Ross profiled Evangeline Cory Booth (1865 – 1950), who would become the fourth General of the Salvation Army in 1934. She was the first woman to hold that post. An excerpt:

Ralph Barton returned to provide this caricature for the profile, one of the last works he would create for the New Yorker before his untimely death…

HEIRESS TO A LEGACY…William Booth, an English Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation Army and became its first General, poses with his grand-daughter Evangeline Cory Booth in this 1908 postcard image. (National Portrait Gallery)

 *  *  *

Home of the Dome

Architecture critic George “T-Square” Chappell was gladdened by the sight of scaffolding atop St. Bartholomew’s Church, which would finally get its dome to complete architect Bertram Goodhue’s vision…

NOW YOU SEE IT…Clockwise, from top left, St. Bartholomew’s Church at 325 Park Avenue, sans dome, in 1928; the church with dome in the 1950s; interior and exterior views of dome. (nyago.com/bostonvalley.com)

…Chappell also commented on the emergence of the Chrysler Building’s blindingly shiny dome and interior appointments…

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT…The Chrysler Building’s gleaming spire emerged in all its glory in June 1930. At right, an elevator in the building’s lobby. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Below the Belt

It wasn’t Dempsey-Tunney, but the bout between Max Schmeling (1905-2005) and Jack Sharkey (1902-1994) was the next best thing for boxing fans. The World Heavyweight Championship had been vacant since Gene Tunney’s retirement in 1928, and Sharkey and Schmeling had emerged as the sport’s No. 1 and 2 contenders.

The bout ended in a controversial decision: Although Sharkey won the first three rounds, he was disqualified after he landed a punch below the belt late in the fourth round. Schmeling became the first boxer to win the World Heavyweight Championship on a foul. The New Yorker’s Niven Busch Jr. (with illustration by Johan Bull) offered these thoughts on the fight’s disappointing outcome:

LOW BLOW…Although Jack Sharkey (far right) led after three rounds, a low blow in the fourth delivered the World Heavyweight Championship to German boxer Max Schmeling (left). Sharkey would claim the title two years later in a rematch with Schmeling. Although boxing isn’t the healthiest pursuit, both men lived into their 90s; Schmeling died in 2005 just shy of his 100th birthday. (Wikipedia/boxrec.com/thefightcity.com)

 *  *  *

One Of Ours

The New Yorker included this brief review of a collection of short fiction pieces by Dorothy Parker, herself a literary critic of some renown at the New Yorker

DOROTHY’S LAMENTATIONS…The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker published this collection of short fiction in 1930.

…and on to our advertisers, this ad appeared on the opposite page of the review…

…speaking of ads, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes continued to sponsor gimmicky penmanship and writing contests to promote their deadly product…

…while promoters of the Empire State Building (still under construction) continued to draw on the historical significance of the building’s Midtown location…

…on to our cartoons, Garrett Price pondered the very real challenge of guiding a massive Zeppelin to the planned mooring mast atop the Empire State…

…a portent of what would happen to the Hindenburg just seven years later…

…the New Yorker made clever use of typesetting for this I. Klein entry…

John Murray Anderson found humor in contrasting the grand with the mundane…

Kindl eavesdropped on the small talk of a couple of ash haulers…

…and William Crawford Galbraith found humor at the public pool…

 *  *  *

On to the June 28 issue, with a cover featuring a satirical kakemono-style illustration by Rea Irvin, who was fond of Japanese scroll art…

June 28, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

Film critic John Mosher checked out the new documentary on Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole…

A BYRD WITH WINGS…A Paramount Pictures movie poster promoting the 1930 documentary With Byrd at the South Pole; still images from the film at right. (Wikipedia/YouTube)

…if you’d like to see the actual film, here it is on YouTube…

“The Talk of the Town” also made note of the Byrd’s expedition and homecoming, contrasting his upcoming book, Little America, with the four-volume historical work planned by popular historian Will Durant.

In collaboration with his wife, Ariel, Durant would end up publishing an eleven-volume history of civilization (four million words across nearly 10,000 pages), written between 1935 and 1975. Will Durant was at work on a twelfth volume when he died in 1981 at age 96.

Admiral Richard Byrd’s Little America, left, and the 11-volume The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant.

 *  *  *

American Lenin

The June 28 profile, written by Alva Johnston, featured radical American labor organizer and Marxist politician William Z. Foster. Despite Johnston’s portrayal of Foster as something of a genial pinko, in reality Foster was a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin and a dedicated and loyal ally of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party until his death in 1961. The Soviets even gave him a state funeral, with Nikita Khrushchev personally heading an honor guard in Red Square. An excerpt of Johnston’s profile:

RED AS A ROSE…Left, a campaign photo of William Z. Foster when he headed the Communist Party ticket in the 1928 U.S. presidential election; at right, illustration of Foster for the profile, by Abe Birnbaum.

 *  *  *

And to close…a colorful advertisement in the June 28 issue from Rex Cole…from the signature it appears to be the work of Mario Cooper, but this doesn’t look at all like his other work…

…and a two-page Rea Irvin cartoon, which demonstrates his visual storytelling skills…

click to enlarge

Next Time…Happy Fourth!

 

 

All Quiet on the Western Front

Still considered one of the greatest anti-war films ever made, All Quiet on the Western Front opened in New York on April 29, 1930 to strong reviews. Based on a Erich Maria Remarque novel of the same name, the film’s depictions of the horrors of war were so realistic and harrowing that it was banned in a number of countries outside of the U.S.

May 10, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Banned, that is, by nations gearing up for war. In Germany, Nazi brownshirts disrupted viewings during its brief run in that country, tossing smoke bombs into cinemas among other acts of mayhem. Back in the U.S., the New Yorker’s John Mosher attended a screening at a “packed” Central Theatre:

WAR IS HELL…Clockwise, from top left, movie poster for 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front; German soldier Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), falls into a shell crater with a French soldier and draws his knife; in one of the most moving scenes in cinema, Bäumer is forced to spend the night in the crater, where he vainly tries to safe the life of the Frenchman he has mortally wounded; a German soldier crawls through the mud in a German training camp. (IMDB/Universal).

Mosher found the film’s adaption from the novel wanting in places, but overall praised the acting and the quality of the picture…

…and just in case some audiences were put off by the blood and guts, Universal promoted other themes on its lobby cards…

(IMDB)

 *  *  *

More Than a Stunt

In her profile of aviator Elinor Smith (1911-2010), writer Helena Huntington Smith took great pains to distinguish Elinor from other “lady fliers” who were little more than passengers in various flying exploits. Like Amelia Earhart, Elinor Smith had the bona fides of a true aviator: in 1927 Smith become the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16, learning stunt flying at an early age. At age 17, she smashed the women’s flying endurance record by soloing 26½ hours, and in the following month set a woman’s world speed record of 190.8 miles per hour. In March 1930 she set a women’s world altitude record of 27,419 feet (8,357 m), breaking that record in 1931 with a flight reaching 32,576 feet. Smith would continue to fly well into old age. In 2000 she flew NASA’s Space Shuttle vertical motion simulator and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. In 2001 (at age 89) she would pilot an experimental flight at Langley AFB. An excerpt from the profile:

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS…Elinor Smith’s flying career would extend from age 16 and into her 90s. At left, Smith poses in Long Island with the Bellanca monoplane she used to beat the solo flight record in 1929. Right, portrait of Smith circa 1930s. (findagrave.com)

 *  *  *

I’d Rather Be in Philadelphia

Theatre critic Robert Benchley was over the moon regarding a performance of Lysistrata staged by the Philadelphia Theatre Association. Benchley suggested the Philadelphians had “put New York to shame” in staging such a “festival of beauty and bawdiness…never seen on an American stage before.”

NO MORE HANKY PANKY…Left, actress Miriam Hopkins in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, as photographed by Edward Steichen; at right, Sydney Greenstreet with unidentified actress from the 1930 Philadelphia production of Lysistrata. (timeline.com)

Benchley praised the seemingly advanced tastes of Philadelphia audiences as he continued to the lament the fact that the City of Brotherly Love had beaten New York to the punch with the staging of the play. He needn’t have worried much longer; the play would open on Broadway on June 5, 1930, at the 44th Street Theatre.

LOVER COME BACK…Production photograph for Norman-Bel Geddes’s staging for Lysistrata, titled “the women of Greece return to their men.” (hrc.utexas.edu)

While we are on the subject of theater, Constantin Alajálov provided this lovely illustration of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for the New Yorker’s theater review section…

 *  *  *

Make ‘Em Dance, Boys

The author Robert Wilder contributed this interesting casual about the appearance of gangster Al Capone at a Chicago nightclub. Excerpts:

LIGHT ON HIS FEET…Al Capone in 1930. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

You Say You Want a Revolution?

Alva Johnston offered his thoughts on how America could stage its own “Red Revolution,” given that Russia and several European countries had already experienced communist uprisings of their own, and also given that New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, always in search of problems that didn’t exist, had announced a new “Red Scare” in his fight against communism.

Tongue firmly in cheek, Johnston suggested how American know-how could be brought to bear in inciting a Red Terror. An excerpt:

YANKEE INGENUITY…Alva Johnston, left, offered some innovative ideas for a uniquely American “Red Revolution.” At right, soldiers stand behind a barricade during Germany’s communist Spartacist uprising of January 1919. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Speaking of Revolutionaries

Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello is one of America’s most-visited historical sites, but in 1930 it was still something of a regional curiosity, having only been acquired in 1923 for the purposes of turning it into a public museum. Although Jefferson is well known today for his various inventions at Monticello, E.B. White was just learning about this side of the president in his weekly “Notes and Comment” dispatch:

THIS OLD HOUSE…Left, a combination of neglect and Civil War vandalism left Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello enmeshed in weeds and in a state of near collapse by the 1870s. At right, students of the University of Virginia pose outside Monticello in 1930. (UVA/Hulton Archive)

 *  *  *

Play Ball?

We are well into the spring of 1930, yet the New Yorker stood firm in its complete lack of baseball coverage. As I’ve noted before, the magazine covered virtually every sport from horse racing to rowing to badminton, and even lowered itself to regular features on college football and professional hockey, but not a line on baseball, save for an occasional note about the antics of Babe Ruth or the homespun goodness of Lou Gehrig. There were signs, however, that baseball was being played in a city blessed with three major league teams; we do find game times in the “Goings On About Town” section, as well as occasional baseball-themed filler art, and a comic panel in the May 10 issue by Leonard Dove:

From Our Advertisers

We begin with an endorsement for Chase & Sanborn coffee by the soprano Alma Gluck, wife of famed violinist and composer Efrem Zimbalist Sr. Originally I thought she was enjoying coffee with a sister in law named “Mrs. Zimbalist,” but as reader Frank Wilhoit astutely points out, the “Alma Gluck” (celebrity) and “Mrs. Zimbalist” (housewife) are alternate personae of the same individual. And now that I look at the ad again, the clothes and hair styles are identical. I will try to locate a clearer image of the ad…

…and from the makers of White Rock we have a group of swells and their airborne friends enjoying some bubbles that are doubtless mixed with illegal hootch…

Dr. Seuss continued to offer his artistry on behalf of Flit insecticide…

…and on to our comics, Peter Arno illustrated the hazards of the road…

…while Leonard Dove explored the hazards high above the streets of Manhattan…

Constantin Alajálov explored an odd encounter in a park…

I Klein mused on the tricks of mass transit…

…and two from Barbara Shermund, who looked in on one tourist’s plans for a trip to Mussolini’s Italy…

…and some helpful advice at a perfume counter…

Next Time: Red Alert…

 

 

 

Learning To Be Modern

On March 1, 1930, the Empire State Building was still just a bunch of sketches and blueprints, as was much of the yet-to-be-built modern cityscape of Manhattan. But as the Depression slowly worked its gnarled fingers into the American landscape, some still dreamed of the sleek, streamlined world to come.

March 1, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

The New Yorker’s architecture critic, George S. Chappell, kept readers apprised of changes on the city’s skyline, as well as of the trends in modern design that were being displayed at various exhibitions including one held annually by the city’s Architectural League. Chappell observed:

A GLIMPSE INTO THE FUTURE…Opening pages of the Architectural League’s 45th Annual Exhibition, featuring an image of the Empire State Building. Construction had just begun on the iconic building at the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (mullenbooks.com)

The exhibition featured a variety of projects, from the Aluminaire House in Long Island to Boardman Robinson’s murals in Pittsburgh to Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol featuring Lee Lawrie’s sculptures and friezes…

ECLECTIC…Model of the Aluminaire House erected in full scale for the 45th Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York; Boardman Robinson’s The History of Trade murals in Kaufmann’s Department Store, Pittsburgh; detail of one of Boardman’s 10 murals displayed at Kaufmann’s; Lee Lawrie’s “The Sower,” a 19-foot-tall bronze statue mounted on top of Bertram Goodhue’s Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln. In 1937 Lawrie would install his “Atlas” sculpture in front of Rockefeller Center. (archleague.org/archive.triblive.com/capitol.nebraska.gov)

 *  *  *

And Now For Something Old

While George Chappell contemplated the world to come, “The Talk of Town” looked back in time to Greenwich Village’s oldest drugstore…

FORM FOLLOWED FUNCTION…Quackenbush Pharmacy in 1930. Manager James Todd at right. (Library of Congress)

 *  *  *

Pet Project

The March 1 issue featured James Thurber’s second installment of “Our Pet Department”…

And while Thurber was doling out pet advice, his pal E.B. White was worrying over changes to the design of the Shredded Wheat box…

HORSELESS CARRIAGES replaced animal power on the packages of Shredded Wheat, much to the dismay of E.B. White. (oldshopstuff.com)

 *  *  *

A Prince of a Guy

A refugee from the Bolshevik Revolution, the Georgian Prince Matchabelli (Guéorgui Vassilievitch Matchabelli) was penniless when he landed on American shores in 1924. Two years later he launched a perfume business with three scents  — Ave Maria, Princess Norina, and Queen of Georgia — sold in bottles that were said to be small replicas of the Prince’s lost Georgian crown. “The Talk of the Town” paid the royal perfumer a visit for the March 1 issue:

HIS CROWNING ACHIEVEMENT…A bottle of Princess Norina perfume from 1926, and its creator, Prince Matchabelli. (Pinterest/Wikipedia)

Those who were around the late 1970s and 1980s no doubt recall the Prince Matchabelli Windsong Perfume commercials and the catchy tune that kind of stuck in your head (for better or worse)…

 *  *  *

Low Life Revue

Ben Hecht continued his exploration of the hardboiled world of journalists, bootleggers, nightclub singers and other lowlifes in his screenplay for Roadhouse Nights, a film that was apparently enjoyed by New Yorker film critic John Mosher. As for Hecht, an erstwhile member of the Algonquin Round Table and occasional contributor to the New Yorker in the 1920s, the film was just one of many to follow in a Hollywood career that the former Chicago journalist held in some disdain (see recent New Yorker article by David Denby)…

IT’S MOIDER, I SAY…Helen Morgan, Eddie Jackson Jimmy Durante, Fred Kohler, and Lou Clayton in 1930’s Roadhouse Nights. (IMDB)

 *  *  *

The Winds of Wynn

Ed Wynn wowed theater critic Robert Benchley in his portrayal of “Simple Simon” at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Wynn was one of the most popular comedians of his time, but is best known today for his portrayal of “Uncle Albert” in the 1964 Disney film Mary Poppins

AGELESS…Ed Wynn in Simple Simon, 1930; at right as Uncle Albert in 1964’s Mary Poppins. (secondhandsongs.com/Pinterest)

 *  *  *

He Was No Palooka

The March 1 and 9 issues of the New Yorker gave considerable ink to Niven Busch Jr’s success story of a middleweight prizefighter. Titled “K.O. Middleweight,” the two-part article was about Stanislas Kalnins, who went by the name K.O. Keenen because it would go over better with the large majority of Irishmen at the fights. Peter Arno provided the art for the piece:

From Our Advertisers

We have another ad from the Franklin motorcar company touting its air-cooled engines, which thanks to the Depression were not long for the world…

…Saks shamelessly appealed to the “poor” little rich girl in this ad aimed at aspiring debutantes…

…Lenthric perfumes offered this all-French ad to those seeking Continental refinement…

…and this ad from Talon, advertising zippers before the word “zipper” came into common use…

Garrett Price was the latest New Yorker cartoonist to pick up some extra cash from G. Washington instant coffee…

…while John Held Jr. even lent his image (along with some drawings) to promote Chase and Sanborn’s coffee…

…this artist for Spud cigarettes borrowed Carl Erickson’s style from his famed Camel ads (see examples below)…

…examples of Carl “Eric” Erickson’s Camel ads from the late 1920s…

…and here we have another New Yorker cartoonist, Rea Irvin, helping the makers of Murad cigarettes move their product…

…Irvin also illustrated this cartoon for the March 1 issue…

Reginald Marsh contributed these cartoons, no doubt based on a recent winter stay in sunny Havana (I’ve been to Sloppy Joe’s, and still looks pretty much like this)…

…back stateside, Peter Arno looked in on a cultural exchange…

…and we close with two from the issue by Barbara Shermund

Next Time: The Non-linear Man…

American Royalty

Although the United States declared its independence from British Empire nearly 250 years ago, the royal family and all of its requisite trappings persist in the American imagination like a phantom limb.

Oct. 5, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

E.B. White observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” section of the Oct. 5 issue, in which he offered his views regarding the “pother” over the wedding of Calvin Coolidge’s son, John, to Florence Trumbull, the daughter of Connecticut Governor John Harper Trumbull

White could have looked no further than the pages of the New Yorker for further evidence to his claims. The bourgeois yearnings of its readers were reflected in countless advertisements laced with anglophilic pretensions. Here are examples from 1929 issues we have previously examined:

LIVE LIKE A BARON…Ads from the New Yorker of the 1920s often featured illustrations of regal, priggish types such as the couple above, deployed to sell everything from apartments and ginger ale…
…to no-frills automobiles and menthol cigarettes. No product was too pedestrian for the royal treatment.

Writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” Robert Benchley commented further on the Coolidge-Trumbull nuptials in the “Wayward Press” column:

HEY CAL, IT’S A WEDDING, NOT A FUNERAL…The former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” for good reason, given his reserved demeanor that rarely produced a smile (although he apparently had a dry wit). He poses here at the wedding of his son, John. Left to right are Grace Goodhue Coolidge, President Coolidge, Florence Trumbull Coolidge, John Coolidge; Maud Pierce Usher Trumbull, and Gov. John Trumbull. (patch.com)
NOT EXACTLY KING’S ROAD…Onlookers line the street near the Congregational church in Plainview, Conn., hoping for a glimpse of the bride and groom, who were united in a simple ceremony. (AP)
CUTE COUPLE…Florence Trumbull and John Coolidge during their engagement, 1928. (crackerpilgrim.com)

 *  *  *

Modest Mussolini

We go from famous faces to infamous ones, namely the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, aka Il Duce, who received the adoration of his public while trying to remain inconspicuous at the cinema. “Talk” recounted…

NOW PICTURE HIM UPSIDE DOWN…A 1929 postcard image of the once-revered Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Sixteen years later he would be shot by his own people and strung up by his feet from the roof of a Milan gas station. (worthpoint.com)

 *  *  *

Going Down

“Talk” also commented on the growing trend for high-rise apartments to provide swimming pools and other amenities below street level:

TAKING THE PLUNGE DOWN UNDER…Few indoor swimming pools were available to New Yorkers during the 1920s. Two of the nicer ones were found underground at the Shelton Hotel (above) and the Park Central. Sadly, both pools no longer exist. In 2007 the Shelton’s pool was removed and the cavernous space was divided into three levels. I’m not sure when Park Central’s disappeared, but it’s fate was doubtless similar to the Shelton’s.(daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/hippostcard.com)

 *  *  *

How About a Catch?

As I’ve noted on previous occasions, the New Yorker of the 1920s all but ignored major league baseball. The magazine gave regular coverage to seemingly every sport, from hockey and college football to polo and yacht racing, but regular coverage of baseball was nonexistent, even when the Yankee’s Murderers’ Row (Ruth, Gehrig among others) won back-to-back World Series titles in 1927-28.

Still no coverage in the Oct. 5 issue, but the sport did get a brief mention in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…and the issue was filled with baseball imagery, including the cover…

The Oct. 5 issue was filled with baseball-related items, but no actual coverage of the games. Images from the issue included, from left, the cover by Theodore Haupt; a filler sketch by Constantin Alajalov; and a Johan Bull illustration of umpire Bill Klem for the issue’s “Profile” section.

 *  *  *

In a Sentimental Mood

Robert Benchley checked out George White’s latest version of his Scandals revue at the Apollo Theatre, and found the sometimes risqué show to be in a sentimental mood…

BETTER SENTIMENTAL THAN DEPRESSED…The chanteuse Frances Williams (pictured on the show’s sheet music and at right) likely provided the only spark to the 1929 edition of George White’s Scandals. (amazon/psychotronicpaul.blogspot.com)

Benchley also looked in on Elmer Rice’s latest, See Naples and Die, featuring veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert

VETERAN AND ROOKIE…Veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert headlined Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die. Colbert (pictured at right in a 1928 Broadway publicity photo) would go on to massive stardom in the 1930s. (Alchetron/Wikipeda)

Benchley applauded the veteran Herford’s performance, but found the otherwise reliable Colbert miscast as a wisecracking, Dorothy Parker type (Benchley, as we know, was close friends with Parker, so he knew what he was talking about)…

*  *  *

An (Ugly) American in Paris

Off to Paris, we find correspondent Janet Flanner joining with Parisians in deriding the behavior of American tourists, who were on a course to drain every last drop from the ÎledeFrance before departing for the bone-dry USA:

DRINKING IN THE SIGHTS…American tourists at a Parisian café, circa 1920s. (tavbooks.com)

*  *  *

Party Pooper

With her infant child (Patricia Arno) at home, it is doubtful Lois Long was seeing as much nightlife as she did during her first weeks at the New Yorker, when “nights were bold.” And indeed, her nightlife column “Tables for Two” would end for good in June 1930. Her Oct. 5 column took a cursory spin through the various nighttime offerings, ending on this note regarding a fan letter and a message from comedian Jimmy Durante:

THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA Jimmy Durante brought a smile to the face of Lois “Lipstick” Long. 

 * * *

From Our Advertisers

With the latest Paris fashions splattered across newstands all over Manhattan, retailers scrambled to get “replicas” to consumers…Macy’s had “couturier bags”…

…the Hollander Dressmaking Department was ready to make a perfect copy of Patou’s “Quiproquo”…

…and this Chanel frock could be had in misses’ sizes for $145 (roughly equivalent to about $2K today)…

…Philip Morris hadn’t yet discovered the “Marlboro Man,” and were still hawking their cigarettes through a “distinguished handwriting contest.” The latest winner was Edmund Froese

…who would go on to become a popular mid-century landscape painter…

Port of New York, by Edmund Froese (undated)

…another artist in the midst of our ads is Carl “Eric” Erickson, who created these lovely images for R.J. Reynolds that would induce people to take up the habit with a Camel…

…and then we have some rather unlovely ads from the back pages, including these two that would not go over well with today’s readers…

…or this from Dr. Seuss, still sharpening his skills with Flit insecticide…

…or this ad from Abercrombie & Fitch, wrong on so many levels…

…on to happier things, here’s an illustration by Reginald Marsh that ran along the bottom of “Talk of the Town”…(click to enlarge)

Alan Dunn found love in the air above the streets of Manhattan…

…and Leonard Dove revealed the hazards of apartment rentals…

Next Time: Race to the Sky…

Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany Hall

For more than a century, a political organization known as the Tammany Society ruled New York City politics with an iron fist. Founded in 1786 (and named for Tamanend, a chief in the Lenni-Lenape nation), by the mid 19th century it rapidly expanded its political control by earning the loyalty of the city’s fast-growing immigrant population, particularly the Irish.

July 13, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Tammany Society proved an efficient machine for controlling state Democratic politics as well as New York City elections. Through its use of patronage to reward loyal precinct leaders, it also became a center for big-time graft. Most of us know a bit about Tammany thanks to school history books that focused on the deep corruption of William “Boss” Tweed, who was brought down by the press and by Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Tammany Hall would survive the scandal, and in the 1920s would still pull the strings of politicians including Gov. Al Smith and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Tammany had several homes, but during its most notorious years it was located in a circa 1812 hall (then called a “wigwam”) and later in an 1868 building on 14th Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. The July 13, 1929 “Talk of the Town” noted the recent demolition of that old hall and the opening of a new headquarters on 17th Street:

POLITICAL BAGGAGE…Top, a stereoscope card featuring the 1868 Tammany Hall; below, Thomas Nast cartoons depicting the corruption of Tammany Hall and the downfall of Boss Tweed. (Wikimedia Commons/Smithsonian)

“Talk” found the new building unimpressive; it seemed to signal that the old political machine was losing some of its luster:

EVOLUTION OF THE WIGWAM, as depicted on a poster circa 1920. (nypdhistory.com)
Top left: The old Tammany Hall, decorated for the 1868 Democratic National Convention. Bottom left, the old hall was located at 141 E 14th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. It was demolished in 1927 to make way for expansion of the Consolidated Edison building (right).  (NYPL Digital Gallery/mediahistoryny.files.wordpress.com/Wikipedia)

Indeed, “Talk” found the building to be a somewhat austere, hosed-down affair, far removed from its grander past:

I LIKE YOUR NEW HAT…The 1929 Tammany Hall (top left) is currently undergoing a major renovation. Although the interior is being dramatically altered, including the addition of a glass dome, the landmarked exterior will mostly be preserved. When completed, the building—a mix of office and retail—will be known as 44 Union Square. (bkskarch.com)

For further evidence that the more austere Tammany Hall was nevertheless alive and well in 1929, another “Talk” item noted the organization’s continued influence behind the scenes in local politics:

The 1930s marked the beginning of the end for Tammany Hall, when reform-minded Democrats such as President Franklin Roosevelt and New York’s Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (supported by Roosevelt on a “Fusion” ticket) dismantled Tammany’s system of patronage. The Tammany Society abandoned its headquarters in 1943 when it found it no longer had the funds to maintain the hall. Bought by a local affiliate of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, it later housed the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theatre until 2016, when it underwent extensive remodeling to make way for new office and retail space.

 *  *  *

Your Two Cents Worth

“Talk” also commented on the introduction of a new two-cent stamp that featured an image of Thomas Edison’s Mazda lamp, marking the celebration of 50 years of electric light. The magazine cheekily suggested that in the world of technological progress, there was nothing new under the sun:

(eBay)

 * * *

Americans in Paris

The New Yorker featured this humorous bit by a writer identified as “Guido” (I assume it is one of E.B. White’s many pseudonyms), who looked in on the chatter of various Parisian cafés and bars:

VOLSTEAD CAN’T GET US HERE…Enjoying the good life at a Parisian brasserie, circa 1920s. (National Geographic)

*  *  *

Hit and Miss

The New Yorker generally reveled in the good times Florenz Ziegfeld brought to the stage, but his latest effort, Show Girl, proved a bit of a disappointment (more evidence, in my view, that folks were tiring of the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties):

TAP-DANCING ON THE GRAVE OF THE ROARING TWENTIES…Although the New Yorker seemed less than enthused by Flo Ziegfeld’s latest effort, Show Girl, Ruby Keeler (top left) brought her tap shoes and her ‘A’ game to the performance. Clockwise, from top right, Keeler has some fun with the comedy trio Clayton, Jackson and Durante; program cover for Show Girl; the popular Albertina Rasch Girls with Harriet Hoctor in the “An American in Paris” scene of Show Girl, 1929. (Pinterest/jacksonupperco.com/eBay/songbook1.wordpress.com)

*  *  *

One of a Kind

New Yorker sportswriter Niven Busch, Jr. provided a nice write-up on golfer Bobby Jones, the most successful amateur ever to compete in the sport. An attorney by trade, the unassuming Jones had just won his third U.S. Open (he would win again in 1930). In all he would play in 31 majors, winning 13 of them and finishing in the top 10 an incredible 27 times. After retiring at age 28 in 1930 he helped design the Augusta National Golf Club and co-founded the Masters Tournament. An excerpt:

AND HE DID IT WEARING A NECKTIE…Although a lawyer by trade, the amateur golfer Bobby Jones was one of golf’s greatest champions. He pictured here after winning the 1929 U.S.Open in Mamaroneck, New York. (golf digest.com)

 *  *  *

An Odd Bit

Looking around the July 13 issue, let’s see what nighttime diversions were being touted by the New Yorker in their “Going on About Town” section (note the warning on the last item):

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s cold cream continued to roll out endorsements from high society with this testimonial from Jane Kendall Mason (1909-1980), the newlywed wife of George Grant Mason, an executive with Pan American Airways in Cuba.

In 1925, the 17-year-old Jane made her formal debut in Washington society. After a visit with Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the first lady famously declared that Jane was “the most beautiful girl ever to enter the White House.”

After their marriage, the Masons became friends with Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, and introduced the Hemingways into Cuban society. Jane could hunt, fish, and hold her liquor, and, according to Ernest Hemingway, she was the most uninhibited person he’d ever met. So naturally they had a torrid, tempestuous, two-month affair that ended with Jane’s attempted suicide (she leapt from a balcony that was not high enough to do the job).

Hemingway supposedly used Jane as a model for the cruel-hearted Margot Macomber in The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber, in which the title character—trapped in a sad marriage to a wealthy but spineless American (George?)—accidently shoots her husband in the head while on safari. She is also considered to be the model for the sex-obsessed Helene Bradley in Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not— a character also married to a rich but spineless husband.

Carlos Gutierrez (who served as a boat guide for Ernest Hemingway) and Jane Mason aboard “Sloppy” Joe Russell’s boat Anita in 1933. (Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

…and we segue into our cartoons, featuring a mother and child (drawn by Kindl) probably flying on one of those Sikorskys…

Rollin Kirby looked in on a tailor’s shop (this is one of only two drawings published by Kirby in the New Yorker)…

…a note on Kirby, a three-time Pulitzer winner: outraged by the passage of Prohibition laws, Kirby created one of his most famous characters, “Mr. Dry,” which he introduced to readers of the New York World in January 1920…

Rollin Kirby’s miserly, foreboding “Mr. Dry” made his first appearance in the pages of the New York World on Jan. 17, 1920, shortly after Prohibition laws went into effect in the United States. Mr. Dry also made an appearance at the end of 1920, to throw some water on America’s Christmas cheer. (bottlesboozeandbackstories.blogspot.com)

You can read more about Rollin Kirby and Mr. Dry here.

Roland Baum peeked in on a reluctant stargazer…

…and to close, this little filler drawing of a hot dog vendor by Constantin Alajalov…

Next Time: On the Flatfoot Beat…

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Broadway to Babylon

While the introduction of sound to motion pictures ended the careers of some silent film stars in the late 1920s, Hollywood’s “talkies” offered new opportunities for Broadway stage actors who could now take their vocal talents to the screen and to audiences nationwide.

May 4, 1929 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

And so began the so-called “Broadway Exodus.” Humorist and frequent New Yorker contributor Robert Benchley offered his wry observations on the phenomenon in the May 4, 1929 “A Reporter at Large” column:

AW SHUCKS…Broadway mainstay and a perennial performer with the Ziegfeld Follies, humorist Will Rogers found his element in Hollywood’s new talkies, appearing here with Fifi D’Orsay in 1929’s They Had to See Paris. (Wikipedia)
TALE OF TWO CITIES…Broadway in 1925 (left) and Hollywood Boulevard in 1929. (Daily Mail/USC Digital Library)

Benchley observed that regardless how many Broadway stars moved west, Hollywood Boulevard would never be mistaken for Broadway. However, Benchley himself would catch the bug and head to Tinseltown, appearing in dozens of feature films and shorts including How to Sleep, which would win an Academy Award for “Best Short Subject, Comedy,” in 1935.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT…Robert Benchley in the 1935 Oscar-winning short, How to Sleep. (YouTube)

 *  *  *

One Who Stayed on Broadway

James Thurber reported in “The Talk of the Town” that famed boxing champion Jack Johnson was a common sight on the sidewalks of Broadway. Thurber noted that Johnson, the first African American world heavyweight boxing champion (1908–1915), had fallen on less glamorous days, but still appeared fit at age 51.

IN FIGHTING FORM…Jack Johnson visits with writer Joe Butler at the Scranton Times-Tribune offices on Nov. 30, 1929. (Scranton Times-Tribune)

Thurber noted that Johnson was planning to sell stories of his life, and possibly get into vaudeville. The boxer also mused that who could lick either of the heavyweight champs of the 1920s, Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey

CUPCAKES…The 51-year-old Jack Johnson claimed he could defeat either of the famed heavyweight champions of the 1920s, Gene Tunney (left) or Jack Dempsey. (Reemus Boxing)

…and Thurber shared a strange account regarding the thickness of Johnson’s skull, which apparently bested that of an ox…

FIGHT TO THE LAST…The 67-year-old Jack Johnson prepares for an exhibition boxing match at a war bond show in New York City on May 1945. Along with making public appearances, Johnson also performed on Broadway during his retirement. (Houston Chronicle)

Johnson continued professional boxing until age 60, and thereafter participated in boxing exhibitions in various venues until his death at age 68 in a car crash near Raleigh, NC. It was reported that Johnson was racing angrily from a nearby diner that had refused to serve him when he lost control and hit a light pole.

 *  *  *

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Anyone who thinks the recent squabbles over Planned Parenthood are anything new might do a little reading on the life of Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in 1916 (in Brooklyn) and was subsequently arrested for distributing information on contraception. In 1929 she was again arrested for operating a “secret” birth control clinic in the basement of a Manhattan brownstone. On March 22, 1929, the New York Police Department sent an undercover female detective, Anna McNamara, to Sanger’s clinic. Posing as a patient who wished to avoid another pregnancy, McNamara was advised on various forms of contraception. She later returned to the clinic as part of the police raid, during which she seized a number of confidential patient files. At Sanger’s subsequent court hearing, McNamara learned first-hand about the importance of patient confidentiality. From the May 4 “Talk of the Town”…

Recalling her arrest in a 1944 article, “Birth Control: Then and Now,” Sanger wrote that McNamara taunted her during the raid when she was told that she had no right to touch private medical files. Sanger wrote “I shall never forget the color of Mrs. McNamara’s face when she heard this medical testimony recited several days later in Magistrates’ Court at the hearing. She was totally unprepared for this embarrassing revelation of her own organs.” The New Yorker made note of this…

Sanger would continue to work for birth control until her death in 1966. Although her name is still invoked in debates over abortion, Sanger herself was generally opposed to abortion, maintaining that contraception was the only practical way to avoid it.

GAG ORDER…In April 1929 Margaret Sanger planned to speak at Boston’s Ford Hall Forum on Free Speech. Ironically, the topic of birth control was banned in Boston at the time, so Sanger appeared onstage with a gag over her mouth while historian Arthur M. Schlesinger read her remarks on free speech to the assembly. At right, the February 1926 issue of Birth Control Review. Founded by Sanger in 1917, she served as editor until 1928. It ceased publication in 1940. (womensstatus.weebly.com/sangerpapers.wordpress.com)

 *  *  *

Please Sit Still

The “Talk of the Town” also looked on American Impressionist painter Childe Hassam, who demonstrated the challenges of painting en plein air…

LOVELY SCENE…Childe Hassam’s Landscape at Newfields, New Hampshire, oil on canvas, 1909. Hassam in his studio circa 1920. (Wikimedia Commons/Wikipedia)

…and found it difficult to finish a farmhouse sketch when a door was unexpectedly closed on his subject…

THIS ONE HE FINISHED…Childe Hassam’s etching, The Old Dominy House (East Hampton), 1928. This work was probably created during Hassam’s visits to East Hampton described in “The Talk of the Town.”(Smithsonian)

 *  *  *

All That Jazz

As Lois Long’s contributions to her “Tables for Two” column grew ever more infrequent, it was clear that she was wearying of the nightlife scene. Now 28 and a young mother, “Lipstick” was shedding her image as a fun-loving flapper and devoting more time and energy to her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue.” Nevertheless, she still found the time to visit the Cotton Club and proclaim Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra as “the greatest of all time”…

…although her other observations of the New York nightclub scene appear to have been hastily dashed off…

THE BEST…Duke Ellington and his orchestra (top), circa 1930. Below, Vincent Lopez conducts his orchestra in 1923. (oldtimeblues.net / www.jazzhound.net © Mark Berresford)

 *  *  *

Electric Wonders

The May 4 issue updated readers on some of the latest gadgets available to modern households in 1929. I particularly like the device that allowed your vacuum to blow “moth poison” into your garments…

NOW THIS DOES NOT SUCK…Garments and other household items could be fumigated against moths using a new reverse vacuum attachment, available at Lewis & Conger. (Cyberspace Vacuum Cleaner Museum / Columbia University)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

One thing you notice about 1920s advertising is the amount of turgid copy they contain…I suppose without distractions such as TV and iPhones people actually took the time to read all of these bloated messages, such as this one from Whitman’s that suggested a box of candy is more than a box of candy…

…or how about this lengthy appeal from Kodak, which used guilt to convince you to get some film of grandma while she was still “at her best…”

…the makers of Spud promised a “new freedom” and a “16% cooler smoke” to the users of its menthol-laced cigarettes. Spuds were the first menthol cigarettes, developed in 1924 by Ohioan Lloyd “Spud” Hughes, who sold them out of his car until the brand was acquired in 1926 by The Axton-Fisher Tobacco Company. By 1932 Spud was the fifth-most popular brand in the U.S., and had no competitors in the menthol market until Brown & Williamson launched their Kool brand in 1933. The Spud brand died out by 1963 (along with, presumably, many of its customers)…

…leveraging the popularity in the 1920s of knights and fairies, as well as the Anglo- and Francophila of New Yorker readers, “Mrs. Marie D. Kling” hoped to entice city dwellers up to the burbs in Scarsdale…

…our cartoons are courtesy of Barbara Shermund, who looked in on a couple of debs performing their daily exercises…

…while down in the parlor, Rea Irvin captured the horrors inflicted by an author’s tedious reading…

…and finally, Peter Arno probed the depths of sanctimony…

Next Time: Waldorf’s Salad Days…