Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.
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:
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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.
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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…
…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:
And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…
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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:
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…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.
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.
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 example, called 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.
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.
In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:
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.
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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.
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.
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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:
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.
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:
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 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:
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):
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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).
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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.
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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…
Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.
Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.
Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:
Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.
The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.
In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).
Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.
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Not So Happy Feet
Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.
In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:
Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…
…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…
Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:
In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.
For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.
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We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…
…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).
The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…
…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense
And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…
We close out November 1927 by looking at a hugely popular comic strip–Mutt & Jeff–that made cartoonist Harry Conway (Bud) Fisher both famous and wealthy.
The editors of the Nov. 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker thought Fisher interesting enough to feature in a lengthy “Profile,” written by Kelly Coombs. A brief excerpt:
According to John Adcock’s terrific Yesterday’s Papers blog, by 1916 Bud Fisher was the highest paid cartoonist on earth. The New Yorker suggested his annual income was $300,000 (roughly equivalent to more than $4 million today). In addition to the strips, created by Fisher and a team of ghost illustrators/writers, Mutt & Jeff were featured in vaudeville engagements, theatrical shows, animated cartoons, comic books and toys.
Fisher began his career as a sports cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and started his strip about “two mismatched tinhorns” in 1907. It went into syndication the following year. Mutt and Jeff, originally titled A. Mutt, is regarded as the first American newspaper cartoon published as a strip of panels, making it the first “comic strip.”
There was obviously a time when American readers thought Mutt & Jeff hilarious, but I don’t quite get its appeal. In this strip from 1926, Jeff gets a pie in the face. The giant question mark was frequently employed by Fisher, as were the dotted eye lines and explanatory arrows like the one in the last panel. No, Jeff didn’t get his brains blown out by Mutt. It is only a pie! Hah Hah!
Another visual cliché from comics of yore was the angry wife wielding a rolling pin. Apparently Jeff refers to Mutt’s wife as an “Old Buzzard” and assumes she is already in bed (sorry about the poor quality of the reproduction). Jeff subsequently gets whacked with the rolling pin, and Mutt takes it on the bean with a flatiron. That is quite a feat, throwing a grown man through a window while simultaneously hitting him on the head with a flatiron…
The duo were also featured inmore than 300 animated “half-reelers” produced between 1913 and 1926, including Mutt and Jeff: On Strike from 1920. The short film (which can be viewed here) even includes rare footage of Bud Fisher himself, since the story–sort of a film within a film–involves the penniless Mutt and Jeff going on strike after they see a movie featuring Fisher’s lavish home.
Coombs concluded the New Yorker “Profile” with these observations concerning Fisher’s personal habits:
Fisher employed a number of assistants on the strip, including George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and a high-school boy named Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). When Fisher appeared to lose interest in the strip in the 1930s, assistant Al Smith took over and drew the strip for nearly fifty years (but Smith didn’t sign his own name on the strip until after Fisher’s death in 1954).
In Yesterday’s Papers, Adcock notes that Fisher “was the unlikeliest person you could think of to draw Mutt and Jeff…along with most of his contemporary cartoonist-journalists pals, (he) enjoyed fights, chorus girls, gambling, and saloons. Fisher liked to shoot up hotel rooms with his pistols, one of which was a gift from Pancho Villa, indoors when he was drunk.”
Heads in the Clouds
Thanks to the race to fly across the Atlantic, toy models of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and other planes were in high demand for the Christmas season, according to this item in the Nov. 26, 1927, “Talk of the Town:”
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At a Loss For Words
Jumping back to the Nov. 19, 1927 issue, we go from the low art of Bud Fisher to the high art of John Marin featured in “The Art Galleries” section of the New Yorker. Art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote:
But perhaps “high art” is not an accurate description of Marin’s paintings, since Marin himself wasn’t into “highfalutin words” to describe his work…
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In the previous week’s issue (Nov. 12) Marmon 8 was advertised as an ideal car for women. Not to be outdone, the folks at Buick shot back with this colorful ad in the Nov. 19 issue of the New Yorker:
The Nov. 19 issue also featured this strange advertisement from the famed Wanamaker department store. Strange mainly because of the illustration, which features a fashionable woman departing a fanciful aircraft studded with mullioned windows(!) and a staircase that stretches to improbable depths…oh, and in case the reader might miss the snob appeal associated with French furs, the words Paris, Parisian or French are featured ten times…
And finally, the ubiquitous New Yorker cartoon featuring the humorous mismatch of rich old duffer and ditzy young mistress, courtesy of Julian de Miskey…
Charles Lindbergh was all over the July 2, 1927 issue of the New Yorker, which reported that Lindy was a better a flier than a writer, and as a celebrity the press had to be inventive with a subject who would rather be alone in a cockpit with a ham sandwich than be feted at countless banquets.
“The Talk of the Town” commented on the display at Putnam Publishing of a few manuscript pages penned by Lindbergh himself for his upcoming book, WE.
A draft of the autobiography had already been ghostwritten by New YorkTimes reporter Carlyle MacDonald, but Lindbergh disliked MacDonald’s “false, fawning tone” and completely rewrote the manuscript himself–in longhand–using MacDonald’s manuscript as a template. Those early results were displayed in Putnam’s 45th Street window to whet the appetites of eager readers:
Nonplussed and often annoyed by all of the attention, Lindbergh was less than a colorful subject for the media. Philip Wylie (writing under the pseudonym “Horace Greeley Jr.”) in the New Yorker’s “Press in Review” column observed that reporters, seeking a more conventional image of a sentimental hero, decided to “supply him with emotions” he apparently lacked:
Other reporters resorted to treacly tributes…
…and if the subject himself isn’t very interesting, you can always resort to listing quantities of food and drink as a measure of the spectacle…
And if the reception at the Hotel Commodore wasn’t to your liking, you could go to the new Roxy Theatre and put in a bid for 300 pounds of home-made candy:
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We’ll give Lindy a break and move on to excerpts from Upton Sinclair’s “How to be Obscene,” in which he tweaks the Boston bluenoses:
And then we have this advertisement for the Orthophonic Victrola, promising to bring the clear tones of racism into your home courtesy of the Duncan Sisters:
The Duncan Sisters were a vaudeville duo who created their stage identities in the 1923 musical comedy Topsy and Eva, derived from the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The musical was a big hit.
After a brief foray into movies in the early 1930s, the duo mostly entertained at night clubs and for many years continued to perform their Topsy and Eva routine even though appearing in blackface was considered impolite or offensive by later audiences. One of their final performances was on Liberace’s television show in 1956. The act ended in 1959 when Rosetta died in a car accident.
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And to close, a cartoon from the July 2 issue, courtesy of Julian de Miskey:
Charles Lindbergh was “The Flying Fool” no more after flying nonstop across the Atlantic to worldwide acclaim. The New Yorker shared in the enthusiasm, although it tried its best to appear not too impressed by the feat. But as we shall see in subsequent issues, the New Yorker, along with the rest of the media, wouldn’t be able to get enough of the now “Lucky Lindy,” at least until he started spouting fascist sympathies.
But that’s in the future. Here’s what the New Yorker had to say following Lindbergh’s famous flight in “Talk of the Town…”
And from its distant perch the magazine also took some shots at the media hype surrounding Lindbergh, and the usual retinue of money-changers (see title image above)…
So what was the New Yorker saying about the historic moment? Well, for most of us, life goes on…
…and for those who missed it on TV (because it wasn’t invented yet), they could catch a newsreel of Lindbergh at the Roxy, complete with crude sound effects:
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On the other side of the pond, Paris correspondent Janet Flanner wrote about the Paris media’s complete denial or ignorance of the deaths of their own Atlantic flyers, Nungesser and Coli, who were lost at sea in their crossing attempt.
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The New Yorker offered more observations on the Machine-Age Exposition, this time in a column titled “About the House,” by Repard Leirum, which was Muriel Draper spelled backwards. Under this pseudonym Draper served as interior decoration critic for the New Yorker — she was one of the most influential personalities in the American interior decorating in the early 20th century.
About Muriel Draper: Although she wrote on interior design for the New Yorker during the late 1920s, she was more widely known as a “culture desk” writer, and was prominent in promoting the Harlem Renaissance. She became active in left wing politics after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1934, and in 1949 she was investigated by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and thereafter ceased her political activities.
The Machine-Age Exposition Draper visited had a decidedly socialist flavor with its prominent inclusion of the Soviet Union and its touting of the International Style of architecture. Before it was appropriated by post-war corporate America, the International Style was developed as housing and workspaces for the masses.
A side-note: The Exposition was initiated by Jane Heap, who like Muriel Draper was a follower of the charismatic Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (among Gurdjieff’s other followers were architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the writer P. L. Travers (Mary Poppins) and 1960s counterculture figure Timothy Leary).
Marxists with spiritual yearnings — and especially guild socialists — were attracted to Gurdjieff’s ideas about something he called “The Work,” in which crafts and community life provided ways to cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose amidst the activities of daily life.
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And now on to a different kind of Marxism…this odd little item from the “Talk of the Town”…
In 1927 the Marx Brothers were still known as a traveling vaudeville act–their first feature film was still two years away. But thanks to the vaudeville circuit of the day, an astonishing number of people in cities large and small across the country would see them perform. The “Talk” item concludes with this story that references Henry Ford’s well-known anti-semitism: