Hooray for Hollywood

MGM piled so many stars and gimmicks into the premiere of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 that even the New Yorker’s jaded film critic John Mosher had to admit he was entertained.

Aug. 24, 1929 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Although today’s audiences would find the film quaint and corny (not to mention its tinny sound and crude editing), it was a big hit in 1929. A plotless revue featuring nearly all of MGM’s stars (Greta Garbo said no — she had a clause in her contract exempting her from such silly things; Lon Chaney, on the other hand, was in failing health), the film followed a variety format similar to such vaudeville productions as the Ziegfeld Follies. The Arthur Freed/Herb Nacio Brown song “Singin’ In the Rain” was introduced in this film, and would inspire the Gene Kelley musical by the same name 23 years later. A rarity for the time, the Hollywood Revue included four skits in an early version of Technicolor, including an all-cast performance of “Singing’ In the Rain.” Mosher observed:

One of the film’s color skits featured John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in a Romeo and Juliet parody filled with Jazz Age slang. It would mark the beginning of the end of Gilbert’s career and, sadly, his life. He was one of the silent era’s most popular leading men, but it was purported that his voice was not suited to the talkies. What really ended Gilbert’s career, however, was studio head Louis B. Mayer, who clashed with the actor both personally and professionally…click any image below to enlarge…

FAREWELL ROMEO…A lobby card promoting The Hollywood Revue of 1929 featured John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in one the film’s color sequences, a parody of Romeo and Juliet filled with Jazz Age slang. At right, a scene from the skit in which the director (played by Lionel Barrymore, far right) tells Shearer and Gilbert to put more pizzazz into the act. (IMDB/YouTube)
STAR-STUDDED…Left to right, early silent film comedian Marie Dressler hammed it up in a royal court skit; co-emcee Jack Benny, with his trademark violin, and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, and his trademark uke. (vickielester.com/doctormacro.com/thejumpingfrog.com)
DANCING IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH…Chorus girl Carla Laemmle in the film’s “Tableau of Jewels,” in which she emerged from a seashell to perform a seductive (and weird) dance number while other showgirls posed on a revolving crown — all set to a tune sung offstage by James Burroughs. The niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, Carla Laemmle was one of the longest surviving actors of the silent era. She died in 2014 at age 104. (songbook1.wordpress.com)
GALAXY OF STARS…Clockwise, from top left, lobby card for The Hollywood Revue of 1929; Charles King, Joan Crawford, Conrad Nagel (a co-emcee along with Jack Benny) and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards show off their dancing skills; lobby card featuring actress Marion Davies; a popular act in vaudeville and on Broadway, the Brox Sisters—Lorayne, Patricia and Bobbe (along with Cliff Edwards) introduced the song “Singin’ in the Rain,” also sung by the entire cast near the finale of the movie. (joancrawfordbest.com/mubi.com)

…MGM deployed a number of stunts to generate publicity at the film’s New York premiere at the Astor Theatre, including a “human billboard” that featured scantily clad chorus girls precariously perched on a huge letters high above the theatre’s entrance. In a rather less dangerous stunt—during the movie’s “Orange Blossom Time” skit—a faint scent of orange blossoms wafted into the theatre. “The Talk of the Town” observed…

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?…Showgirls arranged along narrow catwalks atop the glowing HOLLYWOOD REVUE sign would pose for hours above crowds of gawkers; top, an advertisement promoting “The Stunt of the Century”; bottom, chorus girls lined up on somewhat safer ground in a skit from the movie titled “Lon Chaney’s Gonna Get You If You Don’t Watch Out.” Chaney himself was near death and did not appear in the film. (oldphotoarchive.com/anndvorak.com)
Another angle shows just how precarious this stunt proved to be for these brave chorus girls, who held their poses for hours on end. (legendaryjoancrawford.com)

…here’s a clip from the film featuring MGM stars “Singin’ in the Rain”…see how many stars you can recognize…

…in the first row the camera pans by George Arthur, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton…second row, Bobbe Brox, Cliff Edwards, Patricia Brox, Gus Edwards, Lorayne Brox, Conrad Nagel, Anita Page, Charles King, Marie Dressler…not sure about the last two…

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Technological Adjustments

If you listened to the above clip, then you will understand what James Thurber was getting at when he observed that actors in talking pictures all sound as if they are speaking into cracker boxes. In this hilarious piece (titled “The Roaring Talkies”), he proposed a solution. An excerpt:

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A Happy Diversion

“The Talk of the Town” (via Theodore Pratt) looked in on the hobbyists who raced model boats at Central Park’s Conservatory Lake, a happy tradition that began in the late 19th century and continues to this day:

A DAY AT THE RACES….Model sailboats (left) prepare to face off in 1910 at Conservatory Lake (also called Conservatory Water); at right, model sailors at the same lake around 1920. (Library of Congress)

Pratt also described the old wooden boathouse, which was replaced in 1954 with a somewhat grander structure, Kerbs Boathouse, where model boats are still stored…

STILL SAILING…The copper-roofed Kerbs Boathouse replaced a wooden structure in 1954. Conservatory Lake served as the setting for a model boat race in E.B. White’s Stuart Little. (centralparknyc.org)

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On the Other Hand…

Leaving the cool and quiet of the park brought one quickly back into the dust and clamor of the metropolis. Pratt observed that the summer season lasted two weeks longer in the city than in the country, thanks to the city’s heat island effect— perhaps an unwelcome observation given the usually hot summer of 1929. Not only did the city’s heat extend the season, but it also kept the city enveloped in “an enormous cloud of dust”…

HAZY DAYS OF SUMMER…A dusty haze hangs over Lower Manhattan as the Third Avenue elevated train rumbles by in this circa 1950 photo. (AP)

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Already Feeling Old?

I found this “Talk” item curious for exploring the sentimental attachment some folks had developed for old cars from the 1910s, given those cars were barely 20 years old and cars in general hadn’t been in common use much longer…

…as for another “Talk” item, I doubt modern New Yorker readers would find any humor in this observation:

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On to sillier things, Robert Benchley turned in a casual titled “Boost New York!” Benchley ridiculed a promotional brochure from the New York Merchants Association that touted various statistics in a manner reminiscent of the fictional George Babbitt. Benchley imagined how an Iowa couple might respond to such dazzling numbers:

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A Drinking Life

Occasionally I like to feature infrequent or one-time New Yorker contributors who are nearly lost to history. Frank Ward O’Malley (1875-1932), a reporter for the New York Sun from 1906-19, was known for his humorous stories. In 1928 he published a book titled The Swiss Family O’Malley. In this casual (titled “The Fatty Degeneration of Broadway”) from the Aug. 24 issue, O’Malley described an alcohol intervention of sorts and then his fall off the wagon. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs, along with his photo circa 1910s.

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From Our Advertisers

This week we have an advertisement for the Drake Apartment Hotel, claiming to be the “smartest” in New York. Note how they employed what seems to be the same pointy-nosed, haughty couple that we saw last week (below) who endorsed the Park Lane (I want to believe there is a subtle joke here)…

…just 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk, advertisers were treating flying as though it were routine…

A better photo of the Ireland Neptune Amphipian (aerofiles.com)

…and this young woman seemed to think flying was nothing more than “playing ring around the rosy with the clouds”…

…I like the reviews included in this bookseller’s ad, especially the first one for the book Ex-Wife by Anonymous (it was written by Ursula Parrott, a writer of romantic fiction)…

…our illustrations include Abe Birnbaum’s contribution to the casuals section (breaking up the copy of one of Josie Turner’s Elsie Dinsmore parodies)…

Reginald Marsh illustrated the late summer beach scene at Coney Island…

…and for kicks this nice little filler by Constantin Alajalov

…thanks to the skills of the New Yorker’s first layout artist, Popsy Whitaker, we have this whimsical pairing of Otto Soglow and Dorothy Parker

Mary Petty contributed a cartoon that looks contemporary…

Peter Arno paid a visit to the doctor’s office…

…and commented on his life as a new father…the woman holding the baby was doubtless inspired by his wife, New Yorker columnist Lois Long

…for reference, Peter Arno and Lois Long are pictured here with baby daughter Patricia Arno in 1928…Lois clearly had a better grasp on the situation than Arno had imagined…

Arno and Long with their baby daughter, Patricia, in 1928. (Vanity Fair)

Alice Harvey eavesdropped on a conversation between teenagers…

…and like Peter Arno, Leonard Dove had two cartoons in this issue…here an editor finds the former Prohibition enforcer no longer newsworthy…

…and over on the East Side, rumors of gentrification…

Next Time: A Carnival in the Air…

 

Hello Molly

While the New Yorker was happy to send singer Marion Talley packing back to Midwest (see last post), it was wholly embracing one of its own, Molly Picon. But as we will see, it had every reason to do so.

April 27, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Molly Picon (1898-1992) was born Małka Opiekun in New York City on Feb. 28, 1898, and became of a star of Yiddish theatre and film before moving to English language productions in the 1930s.

Writing in “The Talk of the Town,” James Thurber described Picon as an “idol of the East Side”…

PRECOCIOUS…Molly Picon began performing in the Yiddish Theatre at age six. Pictured, from left, is 10-year-old Molly in a 1908 Nickelodeon short of a vaudeville act, Fagan’s Decision; an undated press photo; in The Jolly Orphan, 1929. (Jewish Women’s Archive/Wikipedia/Museum of the City of New York)
At left, music sung by Molly Picot in the a Yiddish theatre production, Tsirkus meydl (The Circus Girl), 1928. At right, a scene from the play. (Museum of the City of New York)
PUT ‘EM UP…Molly Picot tries her hand at boxing in the silent comedy, East and West, originally produced in Austria in 1923. In this film about assimilation and Jewish values, a sophisticated New Yorker travels back to his village to attend his niece’s traditional wedding. There he encounters the rambunctious Molly, whose hijinks include boxing, and teaching other young villagers to shimmy. (Image: National Center for Jewish Film / Caption: UC Berkeley Library)

Thurber described Picon’s personal life as simple and focused on her family, a path she followed throughout her 94 years:

Picon met her husband, Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich (1891-1975) in 1918 and they married a year later. In an exhibition at the American Jewish Historical Society, Picon is quoted on how meeting Kalich changed her life:

“When we met in Boston, I was the All-American Girl full of hurdy-gurdys and absolutely illiterate about Jewish culture. Yonkel, on the other hand, was the complete intellectual who knew not only classic Yiddish but its plays, theater and writers.”

After they married in 1919, the couple toured Eastern European cities with large Jewish populations in order that she could improve her Yiddish and gain experience as a performer. Kalich served as her manager and creator of many of her roles, and they often performed together, including in two films nearly 50 years apart—East and West (1923) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

Top photos, left to right, Molly Picon in the Yiddish Theatre comedy Di Tsvey Kuni Lemels (The Two Kuni Lemels), 1926; with husband Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich in the 1923 silent film comedy, East and West; with Kalich that same year in Vienna. Bottom row, left to right, Picon tapes the Maxwell House Radio Show, 1938, and below, on the set of the Fiddler on the Roof (1971) with husband Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich; with Frank Sinatra in Come Blow Your Horn (1963); and on the TV show The Facts of Life (1979). (Wikimedia Commons/American Jewish Historical Society/Jewish Women’s Archive/Getty)

Picon appeared on a variety of TV shows from the 1960s through the 1980s including Car 54, Where Are You?, Gomer Pyle, The Facts of Life, and Trapper John M.D. Movie appearances during that time included Fiddler on the Roof (1971); For Pete’s Sake (with Barbra Streisand, 1974); and perhaps one of her oddest roles, as Roger Moore’s longsuffering mother in The Cannonball Run (1981) and 1984’s The Cannonball Run II (In those films, Moore portrayed Seymour Goldfarb, heir to the Goldfarb Girdles fortune, who preferred the life of pretending to be a spy to girdle manufacturing).

Thurber observed that Picon was only interested in comedic roles, a preference she stuck to throughout her long career.

Molly Picon as Mrs. Bronson in the television show Car 54, Where Are You? (1962) (Wikimedia Commons)

To learn more about Molly Picon’s fascinating life, visit the online exhibition at the American Jewish Historical Society.

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Sober as a Judge

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in New York in the late 1920s thanks to bootleggers and corrupt cops. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt tried her best to crack down on violations, arresting (among many others) the operators of two of Manhattan’s most popular nightclubs, actress Texas Guinan (300 Club) and torch singer Helen Morgan (Chez Morgan). In the “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker found hope in the acquittal of Guinan and Morgan, and in the opinion of one of the jurors:

OFF THE HOOK…U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt (left) tried her best to crack down on New York’s lackadaisical enforcement of Prohibition laws, but failed to convict two of its most celebrated violators—actress Texas Guinan (center) and torch singer Helen Morgan. (Library of Congress/Getty/http:/kickintina.blogspot.com)

In the same issue, this cartoon by Oscar Howard tells us a lot about New York’s approach to Prohibition enforcement in 1929…

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Captive Audience

In the April 27 “Talk of the Town” Thurber also turned his attention to the latest treacle flowing out of Hollywood—the premiere of The Rainbow Man, starring Eddie Dowling in his first talking picture. Thurber found the film to be “alarmingly bad.” But that was only the beginning…

TIRED OF ME YET?…Lloyd Ingraham, Eddie Dowling, and Marian Nixon in The Rainbow Man (1929) (IMDB)

Thurber wrote that the film was followed by live performances from “a Kate Smith” and by Eddie Dowling himself, who piled more ham on the proceedings.

PILING IT ON…Eddie Dowling gave audiences more than they needed (at least in the view of James Thurber) at the premiere of The Rainbow Man. Dowling would share the stage with Kate Smith, apparently unknown to Thurber at that time. She would go on to massive stardom. Dowling, not so much. (IMDB/Pinterest)

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Slow Man River

Things didn’t look much better in the magazine’s movie review section, where the 1929 film version of the huge 1927 Broadway hit musical Showboat seemed stuck on sandbar:

SLOW BOAT…Scene from the 1929 film Show Boat featuring Laura LaPlante as Magnolia Hawks and Joseph Schildkraut as Gaylord Ravenal. (Wikipedia)

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Elsie Dinsmore Revisited

Phyllis Crawford (writing under the pseudonym Josie Turner) contributed another parody of the Elsie Dinsmore book series. The original books (28 in all), were written in the late 19th and early 20th century and featured an impossibly upright eight-year-old as the main character.

Crawford, herself an author of children’s books (including the award-winning Hello, the Boat!), had some fun with the Dinsmore books, her parody featuring a still pious and innocent Elsie living with her father in New York, where she encounters his circle of friends including gamblers and chorus girls (the collected pieces were published as a book in 1930: Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose). In this brief excerpt from Crawford’s piece in the April 27 issue (“Elsie Dinsmore Entertains at Tea”), little Elsie tries her best to entertain a friend of her “dear Papa”…

On the topic of books, Dorothy Parker, in her “Reading and Writing” column, took aim at middlebrow book clubs such as the Literary Guild, expressing (in her way) surprise that such a club would actually recommend something with literary merit…

Advertisement in the April 27 issue for Ring Lardner’s Round Up. At right, Lardner and Dorothy Parker, circa 1930. (thenationalpastimemuseum.com/selectedshorts.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with a colorful ad from the makers B.V.D., a brand name that would become synonymous with men’s underwear…

…Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova demonstrated the wonders of Cutex nail polish in her famous “Dying Swan” costume (Pavlova would be dead herself in less than two years)…

…while the Wizard of Menlo Park applied his genius to the cause for better toast…

…and actor John Gilbert was the latest actor to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”…

…this ad in the back pages enticed readers to visit the International Exposition of Barcelona…those fortunate enough to have made the trip would have seen Mies Van Der Rohe’s “Barcelona House” (pictured) and the first-ever Barcelona chair…

(thomortiz.tumblr.com)

…on to cartoons and illustrations, in the theatre section this contribution by Miguel Covarrubias

…Covarrubias (pictured) was an early contributor to the New Yorker, indeed he contributed to the very first issue with this rendering of Italian opera manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza for the first-ever profile…

Gluyas Williams illustrated the collective shaming of a commuter by residents of Tudor City…

…Tudor City was touted in many early New Yorker ads as having all the amenities of the suburbs but within walking distance of the city…here is an ad from the March 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker

…and then we have the English cartoonist Leonard Dove, who looks in on a couple who are obviously not from Tudor City…

…and finally, a terrific cartoon by an artist I have failed to identify (if anyone knows, please comment!)…

Next Time: From Broadway to Babylon…

The So-So Soprano

Although its founding editor, Harold Ross, was raised in the rude surroundings of a Colorado mining town and often displayed the manners of a backwoodsman, the New Yorker nevertheless looked down its sophisticated nose at most anything west of the Hudson, and the middle west was reserved for particular ridicule in its homespun piety and small city boosterism.

April 20, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

Enter one Marion Talley, a child prodigy from the tiny town of Nevada, Missouri. After appearing in a lead role at age 15 for the Kansas City Grand Opera, excited civic leaders raised enough money to send Talley to New York to study voice. Four years later (February 1926) she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Gilda in Rigoletto — at that time the youngest prima donna to appear on the Met stage. A delegation of Kansas City’s two hundred leading citizens (including the mayor) travelled to New York via special train to attend the performance. Adding to the spectacle, a noisy telegraph machine was set up backstage so Talley’s father could send dispatches back home during the performance. Writing in his “A Reporter at Large” column for the New Yorker’s Feb. 27, 1926 issue, Morris Markey scoffed at the hype and Babbitry on display:

THE MANY PHASES OF MARION…Clockwise, from top left, 18-year-old Marion Talley in 1925 in a detail of an image that appeared on the cover of Time; Talley in 1927 (detail of a portrait by Edward Steichen); an autographed portrait dated May 1936; with co-star Michael Bartlett in her only movie, Follow Your Heart (1936); promoting Ry-Krisp crackers, sponsor of her NBC radio show, 1937. (Getty/famousfix.com/imdb.com/mnopedia.org)

The New Yorker (via E.B. White in “Notes & Comment”) caught up with Talley more than three years later in the April 20, 1929 issue, her short career seemingly over, her voice perhaps destined for nothing more than “hog-calling”…

When Talley’s Met contract was not renewed for the 1929 season, she announced her plans to retire to a wheat farm in Kansas (hence the hog calling reference). She did, however, try to revive her career on concert tours and then on her own NBC Radio program (1936-1938), sponsored by Ry-Krisp. She made one film, the 1936 musical Follow Your Heart, but after its tepid reception the 30-year-old Talley decided to retire from show business.

ONE MORE TRY…Testimonial ads promoting weight reduction usually signal the end of a career, and for Marion Talley her Ry-Krisp diet endorsement was no exception. (imdb)

How good a singer was Marion Talley? We will never really know, but you can get some sense of her style and range from this 1927 Vitaphone short (the Vitaphone sound method synchronized the film with what was essentially a record player):

Talley married twice — to pianist Michael Rauchelsen (1932–1934) and to music critic Adolph Eckstein (1935–1942), the latter with whom she had a daughter, Susan. Talley died in 1983 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Dark Clouds on the Horizon

The April 20, 1929 “Talk of the Town” made passing mention of a man who would be instrumental in the stock market crash later that year—National City Bank President Charles E. Mitchell:

The “Talk” item references a $25 million advance Mitchell offered to stock market traders who were getting the yips in an overheated market. This happened after a “mini crash” on March 25, 1929, when the Federal Reserve told its banks to withhold all loans to finance securities. Mitchell’s announcement apparently reassured the public enough to stop the panic, but in reality it only delayed the inevitable—a major market crash brought on in large part by the over-selling of securities by Mitchell’s bank.

RUNAWAY BULL…Charles E. Mitchell’s reckless overselling of securities played a large role in the October 1929 stock market crash. Arrested and indicted for tax evasion in 1933, Mitchell would be acquitted of criminal charges but would end up paying a million dollars to the U.S. government in a civil settlement. At right, Walker’s stately townhouse on Fifth Avenue, now home to the French consulate. (geni.com/daytonian in manhattan)

The “Talk” item continued with this observation on the Panic of 1907, and how banker J.P. Morgan had also offered $25 million to bring the market back to earth:

PANIC ATTACK…banker J.P. Morgan (left) used a pile of money to calm the stock market during the Panic of 1907. His son, J.P. Morgan Jr., (right) would try to do the same following the October 1929 crash, when he and other bankers attempted to prevent a depression by purchasing some overpriced blue chip stock. As we know, their actions had little effect. (Library of Congress)

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Funny Girl

One of Broadway’s biggest stars in the 1920s, Fanny Brice (1891-1951) was profiled by Niven Busch Jr. in the April 20 issue. In addition to her work with the Ziegfeld Follies and other stage productions, by 1929 the comedian, singer and actress had recorded two-dozen songs and appeared in the 1928 film, My Man. Brice’s star would continue to rise in the 1930s and 40s, especially on the radio portraying the bratty toddler “Baby Snooks.” Here are the opening lines of the profile, which included a caricature of Brice by Miguel Covarrubias:

Top right, caricature of Fanny Brice that accompanied the New Yorker profile, drawn by Miguel Covarrubias. Below, publicity photo of Brice as Baby Snooks, 1938. (Photofest)

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From its very beginnings comic verse played an important role in the pages of the New Yorker. The subjects of my previous blog post (Generation of Vipers), sisters Elinor Wylie and Nancy Hoyt, both contributed comic poems to the magazine, as did Clarence Knapp, a former mayor of Saratoga, New York, who also wrote prose pieces on that city’s famed horse racing scene. According to Judith Yaross Lee (Defining New Yorker Humor, p. 354), Knapp was a New Yorker insider who penned a total of 14 mock-melodramatic “sob ballads” between 1927 and 1930. Lee observes that Knapp’s ballads followed a fixed formula, two 16-line stanzas followed by eight-line refrains, that “joked about present social values by invoking past forms.”

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They Loved a Parade

After the passing of literary giant Victor Hugo in 1885 (his funeral attracted two million mourners), Paris became known for its spectacular funeral processions. So when famed French general and (WWI) Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch died on March 20, 1929, the City of Light turned out in droves to say goodbye. On hand to report the scene was the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, aka Genêt:

A PARIS FAREWELL…The Tricolor-draped coffin of Marshal Ferdinand Foch is escorted by the Allied Commanders from the Great War (WWI) during the funeral procession. The American General John J. Pershing can be seen marching alongside the catafalque in the center of the photo. (Associated Press)

By Flanner’s account, Foch’s send-off easily matched Hugo’s in terms of crowd size:

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The Art of Smoking

Cigarette manufacturers used a variety of marketing techniques to promote their tobacco products. During the late 1920s and early 30s R.J. Reynolds sought to attract more women smokers through a series of stylish ads for its Camel brand that evoked a softly elegant world. These ads were illustrated by Carl Erickson (1891–1958), a fashion artist whose work was widely seen in Vogue and in promotions for Coty cosmetics. This ad appeared in the April 20 issue of the New Yorker:

While studying at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, Erickson was nicknamed “Eric,” a name he later used to sign his works. Also a successful portrait artist, Erickson lived part of his professional life in France (1920 to 1940) with his wife, the fashion illustrator Lee Creelman. Below are several examples of Erickson’s Camel work, including two back page illustrations from Delineator, a women’s fashion magazine that featured Butterick sewing patterns.

Clockwise from top, left, ad from Delineator, July 1930; 1929 ad from unknown source; unknown date and source; Carl “Eric” Erickson at work circa 1950; ad from the Delineator, July 1929. (Delineator/fashionising.com/periodpaper.com)

And From Our Other Advertisers…

With our Cuba relations once again eroding, let’s look back 89 years to a time when affordable, care-free living could be yours in sunny Havana…

…or in the days before foam rubber, “ozonized” animal hair gave bounce to your rugs…

…or the modestly well-off could contemplate an apartment on Park Avenue…

View from a 16th floor condo at 784 Park Avenue, yours today for a cool $8 million. (triumphproperty.com/stribling.com)

Our cartoons come courtesy of Garrett Price (1895-1979), who would contribute hundreds of cartoons as well as 100 covers during his more than 50 years with the New Yorker. An excellent look at Price’s life and work can be found in The Comics Journal

Garrett Price, circa 1918, and one of his New Yorker covers from May 21, 1949. (The Comics Journal)

Denys Wortman (1887-1958) looked in on a bookseller with a “spoiler” problem. From 1924 to 1954 Wortman drew the nationally syndicated comic strip Metropolitan Movies for the New York World. The beautifully drawn strip offered a naturalistic portrayal of daily life in New York City…

Denys Wortman at work in an undated photo. At left, an example from his Metropolitan Movies comic strip, dated May 11, 1932. (New York World/New York Times)

…and John Reynolds looked in on the challenges of the architecture profession. Reynolds contributed 34 drawings to the New Yorker from 1928 to 1930.

Next Time: Hello Molly…

 

 

The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

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Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

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Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

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How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.

December 8, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

In a post more than two years ago I wrote about Ellin Mackay’s pivotal essay, “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The debutante daughter of a multi-millionaire (who threatened to disinherit her due to her romance with Irving Berlin), Mackay explained that modern women were abandoning social matchmaking in favor of the more egalitarian night club scene. Mackay’s essay provided a huge boost to the struggling New Yorker, which had dipped to less than 3,000 subscribers in August 1925. A more recent post, “A Bird’s Eye View,” noted how a short story by Thyra Samter Winslow opened the door to serious fiction in the magazine.

The Dec. 8, 1928 issue was significant for a cartoon by Carl Rose that appeared on the bottom of page 27:

It remains one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons, and for good reason. In his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda writes that the cartoon (drawn by Rose, with spinach line provided by E.B. White) “was picking up on something in the culture: it was a moment when the air reverberated with the sound of speech.” Yagoda notes that although “the cartoons led the way,” the magazine has always been filled with the sound of voices in “The Talk of the Town.” Naturalistic rendering of speech could also be found under the heading of such features as “Overheard,” which ran from 1927-1929 and included such contributors as the young writer John O’Hara.

Another New Yorker contributor whose work resounded with the sound of speech, Robert Benchley, received some kind words from the magazine on his latest book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield:

DON’T BE SERIOUS…Robert Benchley and his book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield, illustrated by his New Yorker colleague Gluyas Williams. The cover depicted Benchley performing his famous sketch, The Treasurer’s Report. (Goodreads/bio.com)

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Appearing at the Civic Repertory Theatre (founded by actress Eva Le Gallienne in 1926) was Alla Nazimova and Eva herself in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Al Frueh offered this sketch for the theatre review section.

Josephine Hutchinson as Anya, Alla Nazimova as Ranevskaya, and Paul Leyssac as Gayev in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1928. (eBay)
TOUR DE FORCE…Eva Le Gallienne in 1928, photo by Edward Steichen. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisements from the Dec. 8 issue offered this study in contrasts…a “modern” take on the holidays by Wanamaker’s, featuring the unfortunately titled “Psycho-Gifts for Christmas”…

…versus the staid offerings of Brooks Brothers on the following page…

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On to the Dec. 15 issue, we find the New Yorker enjoying the debut of the Ziegfeld Follies latest revue…

December 15, 1928 — issue number 200 — cover by Julian de Miskey.

…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:

HIT MAKER…Sheet music for the hit “Love Me Or Leave Me” from the Ziegfeld Follies show Whoopee. At right, a still from the 1930 film Whoopee!, with Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor. (carensclassiccinema/thejumpingfrog.com)

And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…

LAVISH, LAVISH!…At left, Ziegfeld Follies performer Jean Ackerman in Whoopee! At right, Ziegfeld performer Ruth Ettig’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me” in Whoopee made it a major hit as well as her signature song. (mote-historie.tumblr.com/Alfred Cheney Johnston)

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On to less glamorous pursuits, the New Yorker also paid a visit to the new “Fish Wing” at the Museum of Natural History, as recounted in “Talk of the Town.” A brief excerpt:

SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES…A visitor admires the mako shark exhibit at the Hall of Fishes in the American Museum of Natural History, 1948 (AMNH)

From Our Advertisers…

…comes this house ad from the New Yorker itself, promoting its first-ever Album:

Chris Wheeler has gathered all of the albums at this site.

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: Happy 1929!

 

Diamond Mae

Although the Roaring Twenties saw the relaxing of many moral strictures — particularly in major cities like New York — Mae West’s frank portrayals of sex on an off-Broadway stage could still create a stir in the newspapers and among arbiters of American probity.

Nov. 19, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Before she appeared in films (mostly in the 1930s) Mae West was well known to New Yorkers both in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her wider fame came in 1927, when many Americans read about her arrest on obscenity charges linked to a scandalous play simply titled Sex. A story of a Montreal prostitute, Sex opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on April 1926 to modest audiences and mostly scathing reviews. The New York Times, for examplecalled it a “crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Perhaps because of the negative reviews, which mostly focused on the play’s morality, curious audiences flocked to see it. Ironically (at least, I imagine, to the critics), Sex was the only play on Broadway in 1926 to stay open through the summer and into the following year.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…Mae West in a publicity photo from 1926. At right, promotional poster for Sex, which touted the play as the “Biggest Sensation Since The Armistice.” (maewest.blogspot.com/boweryboyshistory.com)

The fun ended when New York City police raided West’s production company in February 1927 and charged her with obscenity. In another ironic and hypocritical twist (many in the police department and in the city’s court system had enjoyed the play themselves, along with approximately 325,000 others during the play’s 10-month run), authorities fined West $500 and sentenced her to 10 days in a workhouse on Welfare Island. Always the entrepreneur, West used the sentence to her advantage, and even arrived at the prison in a limousine. It was during her short stint in prison that she began work on her smash hit Diamond Lil.

Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who often exposed the hypocrisy and prejudice in American life in her short fiction, profiled West for the Nov. 10, 1928 issue:

Note Winslow’s surprise to find West to be much smaller than she imagined (indeed, West barely stood five feet tall). Because West preferred a curvy, buxom figure to the thin flapper look, many like Winslow assumed her to be a much larger woman. No doubt her lavish costumes also suggested greater proportions:

West explained to Winslow that she was simply giving the people what they wanted, whether it was outlandish costumes or some “dirt” in their entertainments. Behind this facade, however, was a private, hard-working woman who wrote much of her own material and had the savvy to market it.

BE STILL MY HEART…Page from a 1926 Playbill. (New York Public Library, Shubert Archive)

In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…Mae West with Sex co-star Barry O’Neill during a 1927 trial for obscenity charges. During the trial the judge asked the defendant: “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West replied, “On the contrary, your Honor. I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” (gvshp.org)

Winslow concluded her piece wondering if West had peaked in her success, and would “fade out” along with so many other vaudeville stars…

…. In less than seven years, West at age 42 would become Hollywood’s highest paid star and second only to William Randolph Hearst as the highest paid person in America. Ninety-two years after Sex, West remains an icon of popular culture around the world.

ALL THAT GLITTERS…Drawing of Mae West that accompanied the New Yorker profile. At right, publicity photo for Diamond Lil, 1928. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The Nov. 10 issue featured this all American endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes from World Series winning pitcher Waite Hoyt…never mind that the New Yorker itself completely ignored the World Series and baseball in general.

…and Charles of the Ritz used a combination of vanity, snob appeal and class anxiety to promote their latest beauty ensemble…

The comics glimpsed the foibles of the upper classes, including this terrific entry by 22-year-old Ben Hur Baz, a Mexico-born artist who would go on to become famous for his pin-ups in the 1940s and 50s, many of them appearing in Esquire:

…and a game of blind man’s buff (or some say ‘bluff’) as rendered by Peter Arno:

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The Nov. 17 issue featured an unusual entry by E.B. White, who, like many of his New Yorker colleagues, found many reasons to be critical of the media, including the dumbing down of newspapers that increasingly favored trivia, sensation and promotion over serious discourse.

Nov. 17, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

White skewered the news of the day in this two-page spread that parodied the look and language of contemporary newspapers (click to enlarge):

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The issue’s “Talk of the Town” featured a lengthy entry on Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, a figure greatly admired and generally lauded by the magazine’s sportswriters. A brief excerpt:

The Nov. 17 film reviews gave a rare thumbs up to an American movie, Show People, which starred Marion Davies.

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…William Haines (left) and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in the 1928 Hollywood send-up film, Show People, directed by King Vidor. Chaplin made this rare appearance as himself, without his “Little Tramp” makeup. He was uncredited in the film, and asked to be paid the extra’s fee of only $7.50. (silent-volume.blogspot.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Although you couldn’t legally procure a drink in 1928, you could (unlike today) legally purchase of box of Cuban cigars for you special someone:

…or if you preferred, a carton Chesterfields. Apparently someone in marketing thought conjuring up the horrors of trench warfare would help sell some smokes…

And finally, Peter Arno found out what’s for dinner at the table of a great outdoorsman:

Next Time: What Santa Brought in 1928…

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…