Ride of the Century

Train travel in the U.S. was at the height of its glory in the late 1920s—you could hop on train in New York City and travel to virtually anywhere in the country, even to some of the remotest towns in America’s vast hinterlands.

July 27, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The New Yorker’s managing editor, Ralph Ingersoll (1900-1985) writing in “The Talk of Town,” climbed aboard the locomotives of outbound 20th Century and an inbound Empire State trains to survey the latest technology in rail travel. What one gleans from reading this account is how much this mode of travel has declined (in the U.S.) over the past 90 years:

ROMANCE OF THE RAILS…Clockwise, from top left: Hudson locomotives served the Century and Empire State express trains; silent film star Gloria Swanson waves farewell from the observation platform as the Century pulls out of Grand Central during the 1920s; lounge car on the 20th Century Limited during the 1920s; the 20th Century ready to depart Grand Central, circa 1930. (steamlocomotive.com/newyorksocialdiary.com/cruiselinehistory.com)

In terms of speed and safety, it seems little has changed since 1929, and perhaps things have actually gotten worse…

CELEBRATED LINE…The 20th Century was widely celebrated in popular culture through the 1950s. Five years after Ingersoll’s article, Howard Hawks directed the screwball comedy, 20th Century. Clockwise, from top left, the film’s stars, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a scene from the film; the stars pose for a publicity shot; with director Hawks along with some of the cast and crew. (austinfilm.org/greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com)

* * *

From 1928 until his death in 1950, the journalist Alva Johnston (1888-1950) wrote on a diverse range of topics for the New Yorker, including this “Reporter at Large” piece on the proliferation of barrooms in private residences, hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition agents and sometimes furnished with the bits and pieces that once graced some of New York’s finest watering holes, including the famed Hoffman House:

POPULAR WATERING HOLE…Clockwise, from top left: The Hoffman House Hotel at Madison Square in 1885; the Hoffman House bar, which prominently displayed William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr. According to Alva Johnston’s article, the painting was the second-most popular decorative motif in New York’s finer drinking establishments; artist’s rendering of the barroom; and Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Johnston noted the clever tricks homeowners used to conceal their secret bars:

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER…Alva Johnston described how one library’s walls “had literature on one side, gin and rye on the other.” (Huffington Post)

Johnston concluded his piece on an ironic note, pointing out that the finest cocktail sets could be obtained at Kresge department stores, which were owned by one of the biggest supporters of Prohibition, S.S. Kresge:

 *  *  *

The Sound of Peggy Wood

The Brooklyn-born Peggy Wood (1892-1978) made her stage debut in 1910 and was an established Broadway star before she made her first talking picture, Wonder of Women (a film believed to be lost). A member of the Algonquin Round Table, she was well acquainted with the New Yorker crowd. And the magazine in turn was very impressed with her acting talents, even if the picture she was in proved a bit of a downer:

RECOGNIZE HER NOW?…Clockwise, from top left: theatre card for the 1929 film, Wonder of Women; Leila Hyams and Lewis Stone in a tender moment from the film (for some reason Stone was romantically paired with much younger women in several films around that time); Peggy Wood in the 1920s; Wood as Mother Abbess in 1965’s The Sound of Music; Stone and Wood in a scene from Wonder of Women, with child actor Wally Albright, who was four years old at the time. With his waifish demeanor and curly hair, Albright was highly sought after in films needing a cute kid. He appeared in seven films in 1929 alone. In the 1930s he would appear in several Our Gang/Little Rascal shorts, and would pop up in bit roles through the 1940s and early 50s. Unlike so many other child stars, he seems to have led a normal adult life. He won the Men’s National Track and Ski Championship in 1957, and later started a successful trucking firm. (IMDB/Pinterest)

…the review continued, suggesting that Wood’s acting alone carried the picture…

…if you weren’t into weepers like Wonder of Women, you could have instead checked out The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu at the Rialto Theatre…

LIKE A SIDESHOW ACT…New York’s Rialto Theatre donned a masked front and door entry wrappers for the premiere of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu; promotional poster; Jean Arthur and Warner Oland in the film. Oland was not the least bit Asian. A Swedish-American actor, his work in the hit film led to three more Fu Manchu movies. Oland would then go on to play another Asian character, Charlie Chan, in a string of popular movies in the 1930s until his death in 1938. (cinematreasures.org)

 * * *

Just Sad

Yet another note in “Talk of the Town” describing the plight of African Americans in segregated America, without a hint of empathy:

Potters Field on Hart Island, New York, circa 1890. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Last week B. Altman offered rugged coats for those brave souls riding in rumble seats. This week Altman rolled out some stylish wear for the enterprising pilot of 1929…

…and while you were up there, you could calm those nerves with a Chesterfield (a two-page ad that appeared regularly in the New Yorker)…

,,,back on the ground, the makers of Most toothpaste reminded readers to brush those tobacco stains off their teeth, apparently even while they’re smoking…

…here is another sampling of drawings by Garrett Price, rendered after a recent trip to Paris…

…our cartoons come from Leonard Dove (note the backward signature)…

…here we have A. Edwin Macon’s take on modern furniture…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a visit to an eye doctor…

Perry Barlow’s take on the wonders of radio…

Rea Irvin depicted how timing is everything in an ice delivery…

…and Peter Arno peeked in on habits of the idle rich…

Next Time: The Art of Peace…

 

 

 

 

On the Flatfoot Beat

In 1929, some of New York’s Finest also enjoyed working at one of the finest police headquarters to be found anywhere.

July 20, 1929 cover by Leonard Dove. Note the construction worker’s whoopee cap—a popular hat among laborers, especially auto mechanics, in the 1920s and 30s. Hardhats did not come into general use until the late 1930s and 1940s. In popular culture, the whoopee cap was worn by the gas station attendant “Goober” on the Andy Griffith Show. The character “Jughead” also sported one in the Archie comic book series.

NYPD’s elegant headquarters at 240 Centre Street, designed by architects Hoppin & Koen, were built in 1909 to serve a newly consolidated police department charged with overseeing the city’s five boroughs (which had been united a decade earlier). Made of Indiana limestone, the building included 75 basement cells, a drill room, and a gymnasium.

VROOM VROOM…New York City motorcycle police, circa 1929. (Pinterest)

Writing for the July 20, 1929 “Reporter at Large” column, Niven Busch, Jr. looked in on a day in the life of the 20-year-old headquarters:

WHERE THE ACTION IS…Clockwise, from top left: Postcard depicting the new police headquarters at 240 Centre Street, built in 1909 to serve the newly consolidated five-borough police department; a woman in a cell at the Tenderloin station, probably similar to the cells described in Busch’s article; prisoner posing for a mug shot; the building’s Rogues Gallery. All images from 1909. (Ephemeral New York/Library of Congress (3)) click to enlarge images

Busch described the morning routine of lining up prisoners in the gymnasium for their mug shots…

…and how confiscated weapons were stored, and periodically dumped into the Narrows…

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA…Weapons seized in Chinatown by the NYPD in 1922. The police periodically dumped their inventory of seized weapons into the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. (NYPD Public Records)

Busch also described the methods used by “drug peddlers,” and the prevalence of drug use among perps:

Where detectives gathered and where prisoners were once processed is now home to luxury condos in a posh district called “Nolita” (although some folks still call the area “Little Italy”)…

CRIME DOES NOT PAY?…The 1909 Police Headquarters Building at 240 Centre Street was remodeled into luxury co-op apartments in 1988. A contemporary photo of the lobby gives some idea of the elegance of the old HQ. Adding to that elegance, the area surrounding the building is no longer “Little Italy.” Rather, it is surrounded by posh shops in an area now known as “Nolita.” (street easy.com)
Another view of the sumptuous lobby at 240 Centre Street. (realtor.com)

…and in the gymnasium where hardened criminals once lined up for mugshots we now find a four-bedroom condo that has been priced as high as $31 million (but now valued at about half that amount)…

Architect Charles Gwathmey designed this 6,600-square-foot condo in what was once the police gymnasium—which also functioned as the room where mugshots were taken. On and off the market since 2008, at one point the asking price was $31 million. (6sqft.com)

…and at the top of the building, a 5,500-square-foot penthouse can be found in the central clock tower. Spanning four stories and including two kitchens, a media room, a library, an elevator, the space was once owned by Calvin Klein

The penthouse at the top of the old police headquarters spans four stories. It has been priced as high as $40 million. (Architectural Digest)

 *  *  *

Before Bow Bowed Out

One of the biggest stars of the silent film era, Clara Bow (1905-1965) made a successful transition to the “talkies,” thanks in part to her huge and loyal following. But as the Roaring Twenties slowly lost its fizz, one of its biggest icons also seemed a bit flat in the new age of sound motion pictures. And indeed, Bow herself would walk away from it all two years later, retiring to her Nevada ranch at the age of 25. In the July 20 issue, the New Yorker reviewed Bow’s first talking picture, Dangerous Curves:

Clockwise, from top left, Kay Francis and Clara Bow as circus performers in 1929’s Dangerous Curves; Bow with clown in publicity shot for the movie; promotional poster; with co-star Richard Arlen, who also appeared with Bow in the 1927 romantic war picture, Wings. (Pinterest)

And while we are on the topic of celebrity actors, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959),a prominent member of the famed, multigenerational Barrymore acting family…

“Talk” mentioned Barrymore’s children, including an “oldest son, Russell,” but there is no mention of such a child in any records. My best guess is that her oldest son, Samuel, went by his father’s name—Russell Griswold Colt. Barrymore and Colt divorced in 1923, and she never remarried…

Clockwise, from top left, Ethel Barrymore circa 1930; Siblings John Barrymore (standing) Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel with John’s son, John Barrymore Jr, who was the father of Drew Barrymore (inset); cover of program for Scarlet Sister Mary; Ethel with her children Samuel Peabody Colt, Ethel Barrymore Colt and John Drew Colt in the 1930s. (crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/Playbill/Pinterest)

 * * *

From Our Advertisers

We begin with an “open seat poncho” offered by B. Altman to those unfortunate souls who were relegated to the rumble seat. I am perplexed by this feature in some early autos—it looks kind of fun if you’re a kid, but I can’t imagine a worse place to sit in a car. Not only are you open to the elements, but you’re also subject to peltings by dust, gravel, rocks and other road debris, not the mention the exhaust your sucking into your lungs sitting near the tailpipe. And then you are positioned over the car’s rear axle—must have been a chiropractor’s dream…

…and that exhaust you were breathing likely contained tetraethyl lead, which helped to eliminate the “knock” in your engine…

…perhaps a better way to travel—if you could afford it—was a combination of rail and air, a service supervised by a “staff of experts” headed by none other than Charles Lindbergh

…when we think of the cigarette ads of yore, the “Marlboro Man” typically comes to mind. But Marlboro wasn’t the first to trade on the macho image of the working cowboy. That honor goes to the makers of menthol-cooled Spud cigarettes…

…and how was Marlboro being marketed at this time? Well, they were still exploiting young women who had been conned into participating in a “handwriting contest”…

…as for the makers of Lucky, they continued to get endorsements from some of the biggest celebrities of the day. In this ad we have English actress, singer and dancer Gertrude Lawrence (1898 – 1952). I have to say the drawing does not resemble her much at all…

SHE REALLY DID REACH FOR A LUCKY…Gertrude Lawrence enjoying a smoke with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr in 1939 (photo by Dorothy Wilding); a 1932 portrait of Lawrence by Paul Tanqueray; Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives, 1931 (pinterest.co.uk/Wikipedia)
 * * *
…our comics are courtesy of Denys Wortman…

…and G. Wright…

Next Time: Ride of the Century…

 

Dog’s Best Friend

The “Profile” for the May 12, 1928 issue was unusual in that its subject was not a titan of industry, or a prominent politician, or noted artist, musician or literary figure, but rather a dog—an extraordinary animal named Egon who would be lost to history were it not for Alexander Woollcott writing about this particular German Shepherd and his exploits on the French Riviera.

May 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

I should be clear that the dog featured at the top of this entry is not Egon, but a famous contemporary named Rin Tin Tin. It is said Egon could have enjoyed similar fame on the silver screen (Hollywood was looking for an animal to replace the aging canine superstar), but Egon’s owner, Benjamin Finney, had no interest in the limelight. So I couldn’t find any images of Egon save for this drawing that accompanied Woollcott’s essay:

Writing for the Huffington Post, Anne Margaret Daniel calls Egon Finney the “Jazz Age celebrity no one has noticed since his lifetime, but who is surely as interesting as many of his human contemporaries — and far more interesting than many of them.”

Woollcott would agree with that statement, given the opening paragraphs of his piece on Egon:

When Egon and Finney lived in Antibes in 1927 and 1928, Egon would give diving exhibitions off the rocks below the Hotel du Cap. According to Daniel, the dog also “availed himself of his owner’s surfboard, and water skis — possibly the first pair ever on the Riviera.” Egon was aided in his efforts by none other than the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930.

DOG LOVERS…Alexander Woolcott, left, and Egon owner Benjamin Finney (boweryboyshistory.com/Sewanee University of the South)
HE TAUGHT A DOG TO WATER SKI, TOO…F. Scott Fitzgerald, wife Zelda and son Scottie in Antibes in 1926. Fitzgerald lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930, writing much of The Great Gatsby there. His last-completed novel, Tender Is The Night, was set on the Riviera. (NY Times)

According to Daniel, Finney recalled that Egon’s physical design “made it difficult for him to get started (on the surfboard), but his friend Scott Fitzgerald was expert at giving him a hand… Firmly balanced, tail streaming in the wind, he was a noble sight — and he knew it.”

Because the dog outshone his owner, Woollcott headlined his profile, “The Owner of Ben Finney.” Egon died in 1934, and those very words are carved on his headstone, located in America’s first pet cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Someone He Could Finally Relate To…

Charles Lindbergh was famously shy and crowd averse, so when the famed aviator met with the serious-minded boxing champ Gene Tunney, he found something of a kindred spirit. Writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” Peter Vischer was there for all of the action:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…This item in the El Paso Evening Post (Feb. 29, 1928) was precisely the sort of thing both Gene Tunney and Charles Lindbergh detested. (Evening Post)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers…

Beginning in 1924 the Southern Pacific’s Golden State Limited trains added modern and luxurious 3-compartment, 2-drawing room observation cars to their Pullman fleet. This advertisement in the May 12, 1928 New Yorker enticed affluent readers to take the 2,762 mile, 70-hour journey from Chicago to Los Angeles:

NOT THE WORST FOR WEAR…The Russian actress, singer and dancer Olga Baclanova exits the Golden State Limited in Los Angeles in July 1929 after a long journey from New York. Billed as “The Russian Tigress” who often portrayed an exotic blonde temptress, she is best known for her roles as Duchess Josiana in the silent The Man Who Laughs and as a circus trapeze artist in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult horror movie Freaks. (olgabaclanova.com)

As the fashion advertisements turned to summer, the May 12 issue featured no less than three separate ads for straw boaters…

Today’s ubiquitous polo shirt was an entirely new look for the summer of 1928. The shirt was designed by France’s seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion René Lacoste, who understandably found traditional “tennis whites” (starched, long-sleeved white button-up shirts with neckties) both cumbersome and uncomfortable. Lacoste first wore the polo at the 1926 U.S. Open, and in 1927 he placed the famous crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts. It didn’t take long for many imitators to hit the market. This ad from Wallach Brothers offered one version for $6, although I can’t imagine wool was the best material for this shirt (Lacoste used cotton in his).

No doubt B. Altman had June brides in mind for this advertisement featuring a deco bride of impossible proportions:

And our cartoon is once again from Peter Arno, who explored the not so subtle racism of the upper classes:

Next Time: Man About Town…

Death Avenue Days

Before the elevated tracks were constructed in the early 1930s in Manhattan’s west side warehouse district (home of today’s popular “High Line”), freight trains rumbled through the city–at street level–on “Death Avenue.”

8b6d47f5480e534755b5a03ab5ea97a4
November 5, 1927 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846, which was a bad plan from the very start. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way.

11and41
ON YOUR LEFT!…Both diesel and steam locomotives rumbled along Manhattan avenues well into the 20th century. Pictured is a freight train at 11th and 41st Street. Eleventh was known as “Death Avenue.” (Forgotten NY)

According to Friends of the High Line, “an 1892 New York World article referred to the trains as ‘a monster which has menaced them night and day,’ and by 1908 the Bureau of Municipal Research claimed that since 1852, the trains had killed 436 people. A New York Times piece from the same year reported that in the preceding decade there had been almost 200 deaths, mostly of children.”

caption-1death-avenue
MIXED USE…This circa 1920 photo shows the congestion that occurred when freight trains, horse-drawn carts, cars, and pedestrians used the same streets. (Kalmbach Publishing Company)
the-history-of-death-avenue_list_image
SHOWDOWN…Beginning in 1850, the West Side Cowboys rode ahead of oncoming trains to ensure the safety of people on the street, although statistics show that some did not heed the warnings. (Friends of the High Line)

The safety issues on Death Avenue were finally addressed in 1929 when city and state officials reached an agreement with New York Central Railroad to move the rail above street level. New elevated tracks opened in 1934 were novel in the way they bisected city blocks, unloading cargo directly into buildings in the district.

high-line-chelsea-meatpacking-nabisco-factory-chelsea-market
THIS WORKED BETTER…The elevated tracks served warehouses including one for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), pictured above, which today houses another popular High Line attraction, the Chelsea Market. (Friends of the High Line)
hick-town-10172013
A New York Central Railroad advertisement touting the benefits of its elevated West Side Line, which today supports a unique and popular urban park–the High Line. (Friends of the High Line)

The elevated West Side Line’s unique design also complements the current use of the tracks–the High Line, one of New York’s most popular tourist draws and a widely successful example of urban reuse and renewal. Today few visitors to the High Line are aware that the peaceful oasis they now enjoy was once a dangerous and chaotic place that was home to the aptly named Death Avenue…

image_3_1436827707
NOT SO BAD, THIS…Visitors to the High Line enjoy a peaceful oasis above the former “Death Avenue.” (Friends of the High Line)

What prompted my interest in Death Avenue was this illustration by Reginald Marsh in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue of the New Yorker:

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-8-35-23-am

Marsh (1898-1954) joined the New Yorker as one of its first cartoonists, and stayed there for seven years. He was practically born an artist, growing up in an artists’ colony in New Jersey where his father worked as a noted muralist and his mother made watercolors. After graduating from Yale he went to work of the Daily News, where he contributed sketches of vaudeville acts and illustrated a column titled “People We’d Like to Kill but Don’t.”

Described as a “Social Realist” painter, Marsh studied painting at the Art Students League, where the prevailing theme was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash in 1929…

31-293_marsh
WHY NOT USE THE “L”?…the title of a 1930 work by Reginald Marsh. (Whitney Museum of Art)
m3y34958
SELF REFLECTION…Reginald Marsh with one of his self-portrait paintings, circa 1938. (Museum of the City of New York)

*  *  *

Write What You Know

Among other items in the Nov. 5, 1927 issue was this profile written by Charles Shaw of fellow New Yorker contributor (artist and writer) Ralph Barton. An excerpt, with sketch by Peter Arno…

charles-g-shaw-profile

By Any Other Name

As it still does today, the New Yorker listed area happenings in the front section of the magazine, and in the early days the magazine included extensive listings of sporting events. The excerpt below offers various diversions from a “hunt race” to “squash tennis.” There were also professional football games featuring such mighty foes as the New York Giants and the Duluth Eskimos…

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-12-40-58-pm

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-12-41-17-pmHope(ful) Chest

Before the age of smart phones, the term “smart” in advertising meant one was on the leading edge of fashion–for aspiring young women this meant all things French–clothes, perfumes, beauty treatments–and for the bride, the all-important trousseaux, or so claimed this advertisement from Franklin Simon & Co. on page five of the Nov. 5 issue…

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-12-38-23-pm

Couldn’t afford the latest from Paris? In that case you could turn to the back pages of the same issue, where you would find cheaper ads from places like Kathleen, Inc, which sold knock-offs of the latest in haute couture

screen-shot-2017-01-10-at-12-24-03-pm

 *  *  *

And finally, we return to Reginald Marsh, who contributed this cartoon to the Nov. 5 issue…

screen-shot-2017-01-13-at-4-50-08-pm

Next Time: The Shape of Things to Come…

6a4881d9250d214bed267228a8881e08