Something Old, Something New

While the Empire State Building developers were preparing to reduce the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to rubble, another venerable relic of the Victorian age, the Murray Hill Hotel, was still clinging to the earth at its prime location next to the Grand Central Depot.

June 15, 1929 cover by Sue Williams.

The hotel’s survival was due in part to its owner, Benjamin L. M. Bates (1864-1935), who seemed as much a part of the hotel as its heavy drapes and overstuffed chairs. Bates, who started out at the hotel as assistant night clerk, was profiled in the June 15, 1929 issue by Joseph Gollomb (with portrait by Reginald Marsh) Some excerpts:

The hotel was just 26 years old when Bates bought it in 1910. But by the Roaring Twenties Murray Hill Hotel seemed as ancient as grandmother’s Hepplewhite…

Clockwise, from top, left, The Murray Hill Hotel in September 1946, just months before it was demolished; the hotel’s ornate spiral fire escape, seen at the right in a 1935 photograph of 22 East 40th Street by Berenice Abbott; the hotel’s office and foyer. The hotel featured 600 rooms and two courtyards. (Museum of the City of New York (1 & 2)/Wikipedia)

…but to the very end it continued to be a popular gathering spot for New York notables, including Christopher Morley’s prestigious literary society, the Baker Street Irregulars…

FAMILIAR HAUNT…Three members of the exclusive literary group, the Baker Street Irregulars — Fletcher Pratt, Christopher Morley and Rex Stout —swap stories at the Murray Hill Hotel in 1944. (Wikipedia)

…with the hotel’s prime location near Grand Central Depot (and its replacement, Grand Central Station), the party couldn’t last forever, and the Murray Hill Hotel yielded to the wrecking ball in 1947…

THEN AND NOW, the Murray Hill Hotel, circa 1905. The adjacent 25-story Belmont Hotel, erected in 1904-06 and a skyscraper for its time, would be razed in 1931. Note the old Grand Central Depot in the background, which would be replaced in 1913 by Grand Central Station. At right, a Google Maps view of the same location today.

Some parting notes about the Murray Hill Hotel: In 1905, delegates from 58 colleges and universities gathered at the hotel to address brutality in college football and reform the sport. They formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which would later become the NCAA.

The hotel was also the site of a massive explosion in 1902, when workers constructing a subway tunnel under Park Avenue accidentally set a dynamite shed ablaze. Every window along Park Avenue and 40th Street was blown out, and the blast opened a pit, 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide, in front of the building. Five people were killed by the blast—three of them at the Murray Hill Hotel.

AFTERMATH…The Murray Hill Hotel’s cafe following the 1902 explosion. (Wikimedia Commons)

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Irwin S. Chanin, fresh from erecting his Art Deco masterpiece, the Chanin Building, was now setting his sights on the Century Theatre, barely 20 years old but already obsolete due to its poor acoustics and inconvenient location. The “Talk of the Town” takes it from there…

BIGGER PLANS…The Century Theatre, located at 62nd Street and Central Park West, opened on November 6, 1909. Plagued by poor acoustics and an inconvenient location, it was demolished in 1931 and replaced by the Irwin S. Chanin’s Century Apartments building. (The New-York-Architect, November 1909/David Shankbone via Wikipedia)

As the Century Theatre marked its last days, an older and more successful theater in the Bowery went up in flames. The Thalia Theatre (also known as “Bowery Theatre” and other names) was a popular entertainment venue for 19th century New Yorkers and for the Bowery’s succession of immigrant groups. A series of buildings (it burned four times in 17 years) housed Irish, German and Yiddish theater and later Italian and Chinese vaudeville. The 1929 fire marked the end of the line. “Talk” noted its passing…

UP IN SMOKE…The Bowery’s Thalia Theatre (building with columns) went up in flames on June 5, 1929. The photo was taken in 1928, one year before the final fire. Note the elevated train tracks in front of the building. (Manhattan Unlocked)

While we are on the subject of the changing skyline, I will toss in this cartoon from the issue by Reginald Marsh…the caption read: “I tell you, Gus, this town ain’t what it used to be.”

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Down for the Count

There was a bit of a sensation in the June newspapers when a European count was arrested for running a bootlegging ring among socially prominent circles. A headline in a June 8, 1929 edition of the New York Times shouted: LIQUOR RING PATRONS FACING SUBPOENAS; Socially Prominent Customers Are Listed in Papers Found in de Polignac Raids. COUNT SAILS FOR PARIS. Goes, After Nearly Losing Bail Bond, Smilingly Calling the Affair ‘Misapprehension.’

What the Times so breathlessly recounted were the activities of Count Maxence de Polignac (1857–1936), who owned one of France’s most prominent Champagne houses, Pommery & Greno.

The Times reported that an undercover federal agent, William J. Calhoun, led a raid that netted the Count and 34 others in a liquor ring connected to many Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue residents. Calhoun’s agents interrupted the Count’s morning bath (at his suite in the Savoy-Plaza Hotal) to make the arrest. They seized more than “seven cases of champage and liquors” in the suite, which the count said were for his personal use. Denying all charges, de Polignac was nevertheless arrested. Thanks to a guarantee provided by his friends at the Equitable Surety Company, he made the $25,000 bail and quickly set sail for Paris. “Talk” reported…

IT WAS JUST A LITTLE SIDE BUSINESS…Count Maxence de Polignac owned the house of Pommery & Greno, one of the largest Champagnes firms in France. (Wikipedia/tcreims.com)

“Talk” concluded the dispatch with some notes on Calhoun’s character as a federal agent…

…and a final bit of trivia, Count Maxence de Polignac was the father of Prince Pierre of Monaco, Duke of Valentinois, who in turn was the father of Rainier III of Monaco, who famously married the actress Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly, by the way, was born in November 1929, just months after her grandfather-in-law’s run in with Prohibition authorities.

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Underwhelmed

Once again “Talk” looked in on aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, and his dispassionate approach to matters of fame…

GOODWILL, OR WHATEVER…Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church in Springfield, Mass., features a series of 24 stained-glass windows representing historic personages with the theme, “The Light of Christ in the Life of Civilization.” Charles Lindbergh’s pane represents “Goodwill.” (tm01001.blogspot.com)

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Mr. Monroe Outwits a Bat

James Thurber submitted a humorous piece on a husband and wife at a weekend cabin retreat. The husband encounters a bat, and feigns to dispatch it while his wife remains behind closed doors. A brief clip:

E.B. White and James Thurber, circa late 1920s.

Thurber’s office mate and friend, E.B. White, penned a piece on the opening of the Central Park Casino (“Casino, I Love You”) in which he pretended to be a hobo loitering outside the Casino’s recent grand re-opening. Some excerpts…

White’s character confuses Urbain Ledoux with Casino designer Joseph Urban. Ledoux was known to New Yorkers as “Mr. Zero,” a local humanitarian who managed breadlines for the poor. White’s character continues to name off the notables present at the event…

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with a Pond’s cold cream ad featuring Janet Newbold (1908-1982), who was known in some circles as “the most beautiful woman in New York”…

MIRROR, MIRROR…Left, an iconic photo of Janet Newbold by Erwin Blumenfeld, “Woman and Mirror,” was published in Harper’s Bazaar in November 1941. “Janet Newbold Wearing A Sari,” photo by John Rawlings, was published in Vogue in 1947. Thrice married, her last marriage (in 1948) was to James S. Bush, uncle of U.S. President George H.W. Bush. (Harper’s Bazaar/Vogue)

…some of the more colorful ads in the June 15 issue included this entry by Jantzen…

…and this ad for the REO Flying Cloud, a name that suggested speed and lightness, and changed the way cars would be named in the future (e.g. “Mustang” rather than “Model A”)…

…and if you think gimmicky razors are something new, think again…

…this ad announcing Walter Winchell’s employment with the New York Daily Mirror is significant in that in marks the beginning of the first syndicated gossip column. Winchell’s column, On-Broadway, was syndicated nationwide by King Features. A year later he would make his radio debut over New York’s WABC…

…for our June 15 cartoons, Isadore Klein confirms that stereotypes regarding American tourists haven’t changed much in 90 years…

…a quick footnote on Klein. In his long and colorful career, he would contribute cartoons to the New Yorker and many other publications. He also drew cartoons for silent movies, including Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat, and later worked for major animation studios including Screen Gems, Hal Seeger Productions, and Walt Disney. He was a writer and animator for such popular cartoons as Mighty MouseCasper, Little Lulu and Popeye.

I. Klein (1897–1986) holding the National Cartoonists Society “Silver T-Square.” He received the honor from his fellow members on April 22, 1974. (michaelspornanimation.com)

…Belgium-born artist Victor De Pauw depicted President Herbert Hoover picnicking, as viewed through his security detail…

…and a quick note on De Pauw…well known during his lifetime, he illustrated seven covers for the New Yorker and drew many social and political cartoons for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Fortune and Life. He also had a career as a serious painter, and some of his work can be found at the Museum of Modern Art…

Victor de Pauw (1902-1971) and one of his New Yorker covers from Nov. 20, 1943. (Smithsonian/Conde Nast)

Helen Hokinson looked in on two of her society women in need of some uplift…

…and Leonard Dove looked in on another enjoying a soak…

Moving along to the June 22, 1929 issue, “The Talk of the Town” offered more news on the city’s changing skyline…

June 22, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

…and noted that the slender 1906 “Chimney Corner” building at Wall and Broadway had a date with the wrecking ball…

FAILED THE TEST OF TIME…At left, 18-story “Chimney Building” was demolished in 1929 along neighboring properties to make way for the Irving Trust Building (now 1 Wall Street), an Art Deco masterpiece by architect Ralph Walker. Note the scale of the two buildings relative to the church spire. (skyscraper.org/architectsandartisans.com)

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Apartheid on the Seas

“Talk” also featured this sad account of a theatrical company setting sale for England and discovering that racial discrimination did not end at the docks of New York Harbor. It is also sad that the New Yorker didn’t seem to have any problem with this injustice, and rather saw it as nothing more than fodder for an amusing anecdote…

THESE AREN’T THE GOOD OLD DAYS…Percy Verwayne, Frank H. Wilson and Evelyn Ellis were part of the cast in the original Broadway production of Porgy in 1927. The play, by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, was the basis for the libretto in the George Gershwin’s 1935 Porgy and Bess.

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The profile for June 22 featured 100-year-old John R. Voorhis (1829-1932), Chairman of New York City’s Board of Elections. A fixture of the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine, in 1931 Tammany members created a special title for the old man—Great Grand Sachem. He died the next year at age 102.

John Voorhies in 1900, when he was a bouncy youth of 71.

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From Our Advertisers

Another colorful entry from the makers of Jantzen swimwear to celebrate the summer season…

…famed composer George Gershwin urged his fans to light up a Lucky Strike…

…and with help from the New Yorker’s Rea Irwin, Knox Hatters offered yet another example of the faux pas one might suffer without the proper headgear…

…for our June 22 cartoons, Helen Hokinson caught up with some American tourists…

John Reynolds found a bit of irony in one carnival barker’s claim…

…and Peter Arno revealed a less than glamorous face behind a radio broadcast…

A final note: The split image that heads this blog post is from a terrific New Yorker video: Eighty Years of New York City, Then and Now.

Next Time: New York, 1965…

Waldorf’s Salad Days

While Manhattan is home to some of the world’s most iconic buildings, it is also known for knocking them down. Sometimes it was a matter of changing tastes, but more often than not it was the steamroller of economic progress that flattened any sentimental soul that stood in its path.

May 11, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The old Waldorf-Astoria symbolized the wealth and power of the Gilded Age, but in the Roaring Twenties the storied hotel — with all its Victorian turrents, gables and other doo-dads — looked hopelessly dated despite being just a bit over 30 years old (the Waldorf opened in 1893, and the much larger Astoria rose alongside it four years later). A group of businessmen, led by former mayor Al Smith, bought the property to build the Empire State Building — an art deco edifice that would scream Jazz Age but would be completed at the start of the Great Depression. The New Yorker’s James Thurber reported on the old hotel’s last day in the May 11, 1929 “Talk of the Town”…

THEY LIKED RICH FOOD…1909 banquet in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring US Steel founder Elbert Gary. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thurber wrote of the hundreds of club women who mourned the loss of their familiar meeting rooms, and one elevator operator who would not be joining their chorus of sobs…

HEYDAY…the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel circa 1900, and the cover for the menu announcing “The Final Dinner.” The menu included a cherrystone clam cocktail, turtle soup, crown of bass (in lobster sauce), mignon of spring lamb (chasseur), supreme of guinea hen (tyrolienne), bombe mercedes ice cream, and coffee. (Bowery Boys/Museum of the City of New York)
THEY’RE SELLING YOU…Illustration depicting an auction of items from the hotel. (Museum of the City of New York)

In the “Reporter at Large” column, humorist Robert Benchley supplied his own perspective on the closing of the venerable hotel, and the countless speeches that reverberated between its walls…

A 1903 image of the Grand Ball Room, “arranged for private theatricals. “(New York Public Library)

Benchley offered excerpts from dozens of hypothetical speeches, and then offered this final benediction to the old hotel:

In his “The Sky Line” column, architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) looked in on the newly completed American Woman’s Association clubhouse and residence for young women on West 58th Street. Developed by Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, the building contained 1,250 rooms and featured a swimming pool, restaurant, gymnasium and music rooms along with various meeting rooms.

TRAINING GROUND…At left, the American Woman’s Association clubhouse and residence in 1932. At right, view of the central atrium of the AWA residence, now the Hudson Hotel. Below, the Hudson Bar (renovated after 1997), which has been featured in a number of TV shows including Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. (Liza DeCamp/Nan Palmero top right/RoryRory bottom)

In a 1998 New York Times “Streetscapes” feature, Christoper Gray cites a 1927 Saturday Evening Post interview with Anne Morgan, who said she believed women were at a temporary disadvantage in the business world and therefore founded the American Woman’s Association as “a training school for leadership, a mental exchange” where women “can hear what other women are doing.” After the AWA went bankrupt in 1941, the building was converted into The Henry Hudson Hotel, open to both men and women. From 1982 until 1997 the building’s second through ninth floors served as the headquarters for public television station WNET. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (now the PBS NewsHour) was broadcast from the building during that time.

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Punching for Peace

The old New Yorker was filled with personalities virtually unknown today, but who had tremendous influence in their time. Among them was Alpheus Geer (1863-1941), who founded the Marshall Stillman Movement, which promoted the sport of boxing as a way to steer young men away from a life of crime. An excerpt (with illustration by Hugo Gellert):

Alpheus Geer help found Stillman’s Gym in 1919 as a way to promote his Marshall Stillman Movement methods of boxing. Many famous fighters trained in the dank, smoky atmosphere of Stillman’s, including Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Pictured above is famed boxing trainer Charley Goldman leaving Stillman’s Gym, circa 1940s. (easthamptonstar.com)

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Before we turn to the ads, this “Out of Town” column from the back pages struck an unusual tone regarding the types of tourists planning a summer in Germany…

…and from our advertisers, this ad promoting Louis Sherry’s new “informal restaurant” at Madison and 62nd Street…

WHAT’S IN A NAME…The Louis Sherry restaurant at Madison and 62nd, circa 1930. At right, the building today, now occupied by the French fashion company Hermès. (McKim, Mead & White / nycarchitecture.com)

Louis Sherry ran a famous restaurant at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street from 1898 to 1919 (like many famed restaurants, Prohibition helped put an end to it). Sherry died in 1926, so the owners of the new restaurant were merely trading on his name. In addition to a “delicacies shop” (gourmet foods were arrayed in the plate glass windows) Louis Sherry also contained a tea room, ice cream parlor and a balcony restaurant…

…like the Sherry restaurant, the new Hotel Delmonico traded on the fame of the old Delmonico’s Restaurant, which also fell victim to Prohibition by 1923. Today the hotel is best known as the place where the Beatles stayed in August 1964…

…here is another ad from Clicquot Club trying its best to sell its aged “Ginger Ale Supreme” to dry Americans. Famed avant-garde-art patron and party host Count Etienne de Beaumont (who looked like he’d had a few of something) testified how Cliquot “blends very agreeably” with the champagne most Americans cannot have…

…well, if you couldn’t have a legal drink, maybe you could entertain your friends with TICKER…”The New Wall Street Game That is Sweeping America!” My guess is this game didn’t sell so well after Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929…

…those BVD’s aren’t good enough for you? Then try the “Aristocrat of fabrics” (and have a smoke while you toss the medicine ball around with the gents)…

…and here is more evidence that the Roaring Twenties were losing their growl even before the big crash—the straight flapper figure was out; it was now the “season of curves”…

…a look at some of the cheap ads in the back of the magazine, including the one at bottom left from the Sam Harris Theater that played on the Lucky Strike cigarette slogan (“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!”)…

…one of the films featured at the Sam Harris Theatre was Madame X, a movie about a woman who leaves her wealthy (but cold) husband, turns to a life of crime, then tries to reclaim her son. The ad is correct in that it did create something of a sensation when it was released. It is also important to note that the film premiered at the Sam Harris for a reason: The director, Lionel Barrymore, didn’t want audiences to think his film was just another song and dance picture (like most of the first sound films) but rather a serious drama presented at a legitimate stage venue rather than a movie house…

UP TO NO GOOD…Ullrich Haupt as the cardsharp Laroque and Ruth Chatterton as Jacqueline Floriot in Madame X. At right, ad in Photoplay promoting the film. Click to enlarge. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

…back to our ads, here’s a remarkably crude one from the racist, women-hating people who made Muriel cigars (they being Lorillard, who also manufactured Old Golds)…

…and a softer message from The Texas Company, manufacturer of Texaco “golden” motor oil…

…the artist who rendered the above couple in those golden hues was American illustrator McClelland Barclay (1891-1943). Published widely in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan, Barclay was known for war posters as well as pin-ups:

VERSATILE…Navy recruitment poster by McClelland Barclay, and an illustration for the cover of a 1942 Saturday Home Magazine. (Wikipedia/illustrationhouse.com)

In 1940 Barclay reported for active duty in the US Navy, serving in the New York recruiting office and illustrating posters. Determined to be a front-line combat artist, he served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres until he was reported missing in action after his boat was torpedoed in the Solomon Islands.

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Our comics are supplied by Alan Dunn, who probed the vagaries of movie magazine gossip…

…and Reginald Marsh, known for his social realistic depictions of working life in New York, including these stevedores eyeing a regatta…

…and finally, Gardner Rea looked in on a young man displaying early signs of cynicism…

Next Time…How Charles Shaw Felt About Things…

 

From Broadway to Babylon

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

May 4, 1929 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

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

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

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

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

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One Who Stayed on Broadway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

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

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

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

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

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Please Sit Still

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

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

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

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

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All That Jazz

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

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

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

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Electric Wonders

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

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

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From Our Advertisers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: Waldorf’s Salad Days…

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.

 *  *  *

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…

 *  *  *

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)

 *  *  *

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…

Generation of Vipers

I’d spotted Nancy Hoyt’s byline in the New Yorker before, but I had no idea of the joys and sorrows (mostly sorrows) that were attached to it.

April 13, 1929 cover by Rose Silver.

Nancy McMichael Hoyt was the younger sister of poet and writer Elinor Wylie, the latter a beloved figure at the New Yorker. Indeed when Wylie died suddenly on Dec. 16, 1928, the editors paid tribute by reprinting her autobiographical profile, “Portrait,” in the Dec. 29, 1929 issue:

Elinor and Nancy were the daughters of U.S. Solicitor General Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr. and Anne Morton McMichael. Both came from prominent Pennsylvania families and loomed large in Washington society. The sisters became notorious for their multiple marriages and love affairs, and it was often thought that Nancy lived in imitation of her older sister when she took on a writing career of her own.

Elinor Wylie would contribute at least a dozen poems or short fiction pieces to the New Yorker between 1925 and 1929 (three of them posthumously). Her sister Nancy would contribute three pieces of short fiction (1927-28) and one poem, “These Vanities,” published in the March 12, 1927 issue:

IMITATION OF LIFE…Nancy Hoyt (left) followed in the footsteps of her older, more successful sister, Elinor Wylie (right). The undated photo of Hoyt was taken by Sherril Schell. Wylie’s 1922 portrait was taken by her friend Carl Van Vechten. (CondeNast, alchetron)

The April 13, 1929 issue featured Hoyt’s sharp satirical piece about a fictional Southern Girl…

No doubt Hoyt drew on her own observations of Washington society and the clash of debutantes from the North and South. She continued her skewering of the Southern girl, likening her to something of a country bumpkin…

…and not very bright at that…

The last paragraph is telling, because in many ways it describes Hoyt’s own life. In her 2003 book, A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie, Evelyn Helmick Hively wrote that Hoyt “scandalized Washington by cancelling her wedding after society guests arrived for the ceremony” (apparently Elinor helped her reach the decision). Her various love affairs and marriages provided rich material for reporters who wrote about her flings with the Earl of Donegal and and the heir to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune. The Washington Herald reported her attempt to elope to Canada with a taxi driver she had known for only ten days.

Hively observed that each member of the Hoyt family “seemed fated to flame briefly, to struggle, and too often to die tragically.” Indeed, Elinor and Nancy’s mother Anne once told a reporter that she had given birth to a “generation of vipers,” and predicted she would outlive them all. And she nearly did:

• The eldest child, Elinor Wylie, suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines. She died of a stroke on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. She was 43.

• The eldest son, Henry Martyn Hoyt, became a poet and painter. He killed himself in 1920 at age 33 by inhaling through a tube attached to a gas jet.

• Daughter Constance A. Hoyt married a German diplomat (against her family’s wishes) and became Baroness von Stumm-Halberg. She was either 33 or 34 when she committed suicide in Bavaria in 1923.

• Morton McMichael Hoyt would marry the same woman—Eugenia Bankhead (sister of actress Tallulah Bankhead)—three times. Heavy drinking ended his life in 1949, at age 50.

• Just fifteen days later Nancy Hoyt would succumb to the drink at age 47.

The family patriarch, Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr., was long gone by then, dying at age 54 in 1910. The family matriarch, Anne Morton McMichael, almost outlived them all (odd, considering that she was in ill health much of her life and often remained confined to her room). She died in her late 80s, in 1949, the same year as her two youngest children.

Top left, Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr., U.S. Solicitor General and patriarch of the Hoyt family; in addition to Elinor Wylie and Nancy Hoyt, his children included (clockwise, from top right) the painter and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt III (in a self-portrait); Constance Hoyt (pictured riding in a car with Baron Ferdinand von Stumm-Halberg); and Morton Hoyt, seen here with his three-time wife Eugenia Bankhead. (Wikipedia, hokku.wordpress.com, theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.com, historic images.com)

And as a final, sad note (did you expect anything else?) Nancy’s daughter, Edwina Curtis, would eventually inherit the bulk of the Hoyt estate, which was quickly squandered.

 *  *  *

Silence is Golden

During the silent era, actress Mary Pickford was hands down the queen of the movies. Pickford and her husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks, were also the original Hollywood power couple, founding the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and later joining forces with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to create United Artists. Pickford was also one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the “Oscar” presenters).

AMERICA’S SWEETHEART…Mary Pickford with her signature curls, surrounded by fan mail, circa 1920. (AMPAS)

Although she was born in Canada, she was beloved in the States as a symbol of female virtue, affectionately dubbed “America’s Sweetheart.” According to writer Eileen Whitfield (Pickford: the Woman Who Made Hollywood), one silent movie reporter described Pickford as “the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.”

Also known as the “girl with the curls” for her famous ringlets, fans were shocked to find those ringlets replaced by a short bob in Pickford’s first talking film, Coquette, in which she played a reckless socialite. The New Yorker was not shocked; on the contrary, it found Pickford’s depiction of a coquette rather forced, and not altogether believeable:

THUS SPOKE MARY PICKFORD…Crowds lined up at the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles to get a first glimpse of the “new” talking Mary Pickford in Coquette.

Not only did the New Yorker find Pickford’s performance less than plausible, but the storyline itself seemed a bit fanciful. As for the “Southern drawl” used in the dialogue, the magazine found it “almost unintelligible to Manhattan ears…”

You be the judge. Here’s a brief clip from the film:

Coquette was a box office success, and Pickford would win an Oscar for her first sound performance. Nevertheless, her best days were in the silent era, and she retired from acting in 1933.

100% MARY…(Left to Right) Matt Moore, John St. Polis, and Mary Pickford in Coquette (1929), a film directed by Sam Taylor. (Wikimedia)

 *  *  *

Today we associate popular songs with a particular performer or group, but in the first half of the 20th century most songs were recorded by many different artists, and such was the case with Ray Henderson’s hit “Button Up Your Overcoat” (from the musical comedy Follow Thru), recordings of which were available under three different labels by three popular artists of the day—Helen Kane, Zelma O’Neal, and Ruth Etting. As the New Yorker suggested, you could “pick your own fashions”…

PICK YOUR FASHION…Left to right, Helen Kane, Ruth Etting and Zelma O’Neal all recorded renditions of the “Button Up Your Overcoat” in 1929. (bennypdrinnon.blogspot.com/ruthettig.com/Getty)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Spring had sprung and so did “fashion welts” and rubber-soled Plytex shoes suitable for ship decks or leisurely strolls along Palm Beach…

…while the folks at Texaco referenced the future with dirigibles and airplanes to hawk its higher octane “premium” gasoline…

For our comics, we have this entry by C.W. Anderson, who was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, and went on to author the popular Billy and Blaze books for young readers. I know this thanks to Michael Maslin’s indispensable The New Yorker Cartoonists A-Z.

…and we close with this cartoon by John Reynolds, who contributed a total of 34 drawings to the New Yorker between 1928 and 1930…

Next Time: The So-So Soprano…

Million Dollar Mermaid

Our sense of what is old and what it is new becomes skewed during periods of rapid change, and such was the case in 1920s New York when large swaths of the old city were swept away and replaced by massive towers that seemingly rose overnight. Places like the Hippodrome Theatre, a 1905 Beaux-Arts confection barely 24 years old, seemed positively ancient in those heady times.

Feb. 9, 1929 cover by Helen Hokinson. Feb. 16, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

For the most part the New Yorker was enthusiastic about the changing skyline, as its namesake was claiming the crown as America’s premier city; but occasionally a melancholy note would be struck when a familiar institution appeared in decline or fated for the wrecking ball. In the Feb. 9, 1929 “Talk of the Town,” E.B. White wistfully recalled the old days of the Hippodrome, once the largest theatre in the world and the pride of turn-of-the-century New York:

FOR THE MASSES…The Hippodrome, built in 1905, provided entertainment to millions of New Yorkers who couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway play. The brainchild of Frederick Thompson and Elmer S. Dundy, entrepreneurs of Coney Island’s Luna Park, the Hippodrome was torn down in 1939 after more than a decade of decline. (1905 photo courtesy Library of Congress)
A REALLY BIG SHOOO…One of the first performances at the Hippodrome was a four-hour spectacle: A Yankee Circus on Mars (advertised on the theatre’s marquee in photo above). The 1905 production included 280 chorus girls, 480 soldiers, a parade of cars driven by elephants, an equestrienne ballet, acrobats, and a cavalry charge through a lake. (Image from Harper’s Weekly via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)
The Hippodrome’s main theatre could accommodate 5,300 patrons in seats that were four inches wider than normal theatre seats. The dome over the “Roman style” auditorium encompassed an acre. (Broadway Magazine 1905 via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Hippodrome held such a place in the heart of the New Yorker that the magazine offered further reminiscences in the Feb. 16 issue, this time penned by managing editor Harold Ross:

For demonstrations of diving and “mermaid spectacles,” the Hippodrome stage featured an eight-foot high steel tank in four sections, with a front of plate glass. Manned diving bells were also used to raise and lower “mermaids” during performances.

OLD TIMEY FX…Illustration from Nature magazine (left) depicts a diving bell used in the Hippodrome’s swimming and diving tank to raise and lower performers. At top, circa 1910 advertisement; at bottom, the “Court of the Golden Fountain” in the the theatre’s 1905-06 presentation of A Society Circus. (les-sources-du-nil.tumblr.com/flickr/NYC Architecture)

Ross wrote about the Hippodrome’s “diving girls,” who would dive into a tank of water from a height of 90 feet, sometimes at a serious cost to their health:

HIPPODROME’S HEYDAYS…In the early 1900s Australian swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman (left, in an image from her 1918 book, How to Swim) was a famed performer at the Hippodrome, as was illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini, shown here in 1918  with Jennie the Elephant in a performance of the vanishing elephant trick. (Monash University/americaslibrary.gov/wildabouthoudini.com)
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID…famed around the world by that moniker, swimmer and later actress Annette Kellerman is considered the originator of the one‐piece bathing suit, which she models at left in a photo taken around 1907. At right, advertisement for Kellerman’s 1916 film A Daughter of the Gods (now lost), in which Kellerman achieved another first: the first complete nude scene by a major star. The William Fox Studio made much of Kellerman’s figure, promoting her as the perfect woman by “comparing” her measurements to the likes of Cleopatra and Venus de Milo. (Wikipedia/consumingcultures.net)

Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was a big draw at the Hippodrome, and helped popularize the sport of synchronised swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in theatre’s giant plate glass tank. In that same year she shocked Bostonians by appearing on a local beach in a “daring” one‐piece bathing suit (shown above), and was arrested for indecency. This was at a time when a woman’s standard bathing apparel consisted of a blouse, skirt, stockings and swimming shoes.

Unlike some of the unfortunate Hippodrome divers who later lost their eyesight due to cranial pressure from high dives, Kellerman went on to a long and active life (she died in 1975, at age 88). Known throughout the world as Australia’s “Million Dollar Mermaid” (and portrayed by Esther Williams in a 1952 movie by the same name), Kellerman appeared in more than a dozen films between 1909 and 1924. She also launched her own line of swimwear and wrote several books on swimming, beauty and fitness.

ALL WET…At top, Annette Kellerman swimming underwater in a gold sequined dress, possibly from  Queen of the Sea (1918, now lost). Thirty-four years later Esther Williams (below) would portray Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid. (historycouncilnsw.org.au/gsgs/movieactors.com)

*  *  *

City of Lights

While E.B. White got misty-eyed about the old Hippodrome in the Feb. 9 issue, his fellow New Yorker writer and friend James Thurber was thrilling on the new skyscrapers lighting the city’s skyline:

BEJEWELED CROWN…The New York Central Building depicted in a 1929 promotional painting by Chesley Bonestell. (albanyinstitute.org)

Thurber noted that “100,000 candlepower” would light the golden crown of the New York Central Building, the tallest structure in the Grand Central complex. Over at the new Chanin Building, a whopping 25 million candle-power would be trained on its art deco crown.

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…At left, the nearly 700-foot-tall Chanin Building joined the race for the sky in 1928-29. At right, a 1929 drypoint etching by Australian-born artist Martin Lewis depicted the magical glow of the Chanin Building from the viewpoint of a tenement dweller on a fire escape. (favrify.com/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Advertisers in the New Yorker reflected the mood of this new city of skyscraper canyons. From the Feb. 16 issue:

Ralph Ingersoll and Thurber also wrote in the Feb. 16 “Talk” about plans for “Rockefeller City…”

…and as we know, this was to become the famed Rockefeller Center, a complex of 19 buildings covering 22 acres between 48th and 51st streets. Led by by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the complex was conceived as an urban renewal project to revitalize Midtown (hard to imagine today). The land was originally envisioned as a site for a new Metropolitan Opera house, but when financing fell through the land’s owner, Columbia University, leased it to Rockefeller. Of the anticipated effect of the project, Ingersoll and Thurber wrote:

And for the record, the Feb. 9 issue featured another name that would shape the future of the city—J. Pierpont Morgan was the subject of a lengthy two-part profile penned by John K. Winkler.

 * * *

Shouts & Murmurs

The Feb. 16 marks a significant date on the New Yorker calendar—the first appearance of Alexander Woollcott’s famed “Shouts & Murmurs” column:

Writing in the “Double Take” section in the July 18, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Michaud notes that “Shouts & Murmurs” was Woollcott’s personal column, appearing weekly in the magazine for five years. Perhaps no person other Harold Ross himself could be more associated with the earliest origins of the magazine —  Woollcott was a colleague of Ross’s at Stars and Stripes during the First World War, and introduced Ross to his first wife, Jane Grant, who was also a considerable influence on the early magazine.

Michaud writes that Woollcott used the column “to opine on, lampoon, and attack the culture and society of the day. In his distinct and at times excessive style, he reviewed books, wrote spoofs, distributed gossip, and generally rankled as many people as he could.” Woollcott ended the column in December 1934, but it was revived in 1992 as a regular venue for many notable humorists, and continues to this day.

A REAL CHARACTER…Alexander Woollcott, in his idea of casual wear. He once informed his friend and New Yorker colleague Corey Ford: “Ford, I plan to spend three days at your house in New Hampshire next week.” Not overly pleased to be hosting such a demanding guest, Ford uttered a meek “That will be swell.” “I’ll be the judge of that,” Woolcott warned him. (From Elizabeth Olliff, “An Evening at the Algonquin.”)

* * *

Up In Smoke

Jumping back to the Feb. 9 “Talk of the Town,” we have this complaint from the magazine regarding celebrity cigarette endorsements. Although the magazine derived a lot of revenue from cigarette ads, Harold Ross insisted on a strict separation between editorial and advertising, allowing his writers free reign to bite the hands that fed them, if they so wished:

Here’s the offending ad, which was featured in the Feb. 23 issue:

In the Feb. 9 issue, Groucho Marx couldn’t resist getting in on the endorsement action…

…nor could Ross’s old friend George Gershwin, who touted the health benefits of Lucky Strikes in the Feb. 16 issue…

In other ads from the Feb. 16 issue, we find that for all of the technological advances in the 1920s, a decent car heater still eluded automakers. Hence…

…on the other hand, we also have this very up-to-date product—the forerunner of today’s rolling airplane luggage…

…and if you happened to be flying south, you might have first checked in with Helena Rubinstein to make sure you had the right “face fashions”…

And finally our cartoons, all from the Feb. 9 issue. This first is a six-panel series by Al Frueh that originally ran diagonally, top to bottom, across a two-page spread. It took a shot at the self-promoting police commissioner, Grover Whalen, who was not a friend to the New Yorker due to his ham-fisted approach to Prohibition enforcement…

…and Leonard Dove took a shot at some posh folks outside of their urban element…

…and finally, Alan Dunn examined the wages of beauty…

Next Time: Modern English Usage…

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

 * * *

He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

 * * *

Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

* * *

Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…