Lighter Than Air

Just a decade after German Zeppelins sowed terror across the skies of Europe and Great Britain, Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin was enthusiastically welcomed by a throng gathered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the massive airship having completed its first intercontinental trip across the Atlantic.

Oct. 27, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

It had been only ten years and two months since German Zeppelins dropped their last bombs on the British, which had dubbed the airships “baby killers” for the mostly civilian casualties they inflicted. Beginning in 1915, Zeppelin raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000 over the course of more than 50 attacks. It must have been a terrifying sight, something straight out of science fiction — flying ships more than the length of two football fields, blotting out the stars as they loomed overhead. Their size, however, was also their downfall, as Britain soon developed air defenses (searchlights, antiaircraft guns, and fighter planes) that shot many of these hydrogen gasbags out of the sky (77 of Germany’s 115 airships were either shot down or disabled).

TERROR IN THE SKIES…Image from a German postcard celebrating the bombing of Warsaw by the Zeppelin Schütte Lanz in 1914. Here’s a weird fact: There was a shortage of sausages in Germany during WWI, since cow intestines normally used for casings were instead used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas that kept Zeppelins aloft. It took more than 250,000 cows to make one airship. (Wikipedia)

So when the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin loomed over the New York City skyline on Oct. 15, 1928, the reaction was one of awe rather than terror. The New York Times heralded its safe arrival on the front page…

(rarenewspaper.com)
The Graf Zeppelin at Lakehurst, N.J., 1929. (rarehistoricalphotos.com)

…and the New Yorker’s James Thurber (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) was on hand to assess the welcoming crowds gathered at Lakehurst, N.J….

…who in their enthusiasm could have easily destroyed the vessel, which had already sustained damage during a storm over Bermuda…

OLD GAS BAG…The Graf Zeppelin arriving at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) on August 26, 1929, during a stop on its flight around the world. (silodrome.com)
Living quarters of the Graf Zeppelin. Cozy, if you could forget that your room was contained within an envelope of highly explosive hydrogen gas. (airships.net)

Dining aboard the Graf Zeppelin. (Top, airshipsonline.com, bottom, airships.net)

Reuben’s restaurant in New York seized the opportunity to cash in on the spectacle, boasting (in this hastily placed ad in the Oct. 27 issue) that the Graf Zeppelin’s passengers dined at their establishment on the very night of their arrival…

A final note: Considering the hazards of flying these ungainly, flammable machines (e.g. the Hindenburg in 1937) Graf Zeppelin flew more than one million miles in its career (the first aircraft in history to do so), making 590 flights (144 of them oceanic crossings, including one across the Pacific), and carrying more than 13,000 passengers — all without injury to passengers or crew.

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Rough Riders

Back on the ground, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on a somewhat less exotic form of long-distance travel — the recently inaugurated coast-to-coast bus service from New York to Los Angeles:

LONG HAUL…This greyhound bus from 1929 was probably similar to those leaving the New York bus stations for points west in 1928. (flickr)

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From Our Advertisers

On the subject of rolling transportation, Buick trumpeted the introduction of “adjustable front seats” in its silver anniversary model. Curiously, this improvement was touted as a convenience solely for women drivers…

Our cartoon (a two-pager) for Oct. 27 comes from Gardner Rea, the latest among the New Yorker’s staff to mock the quality of sound motion pictures. The cartoon is labeled at the bottom: “The Firtht One Hundred Per Thent Thound Movie Breakth All Houth Recordth.” (click image to enlarge)

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If you wanted to get a glimpse of New York’s “royalty” in 1928, you could secure a seat at the Metropolitan Opera, especially one with a view of its famed “Diamond Horseshoe” seats.

November 3, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The “Diamond Horseshoe” described a ring of seats at the Metropolitan Opera House occupied by New York’s social elite. Not unlike today’s stadium skyboxes, the Met reserved these boxes for purchase by the wealthy. “The Talk of Town” for Nov. 3, 1928 noted how many of these were still held by the same families that had secured spots after the Met opened in 1883:

CULTURAL LANDMARK…The Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street circa 1905. (Wikipedia)
A PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN…Leading figures of New York society seated in the Met’s famed “Diamond Horseshoe” section in 1929. (NY Daily News)

“Talk” also noted that some of the boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe were coming into new ownerships among the newly rich (E.F. Hutton) and even (gasp) immigrants such as Otto Kahn:

DUST TO DUST…Above, a view of the “Diamond Horseshoe” at the Metropolitan Opera’s gala farewell performance on April 16, 1966. Below, patrons say goodbye to the old house at Broadway at the farewell performance. The building was torn down in 1967 and replaced by a 40-story office tower. (Life)

Also in the Nov. 3 issue was this comic by Peter Arno depicting one of the Met’s boxes stuffed with overfed toffs:

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Poet With a Green Thumb

The Nov. 3 “Talk” also featured a bit by James Thurber on American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, a major figure in New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene as well as a feminist leader. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (1923), Millay was also an avid gardener who preferred the solitude of her farm, Steepletop, to the limelight usually accorded a literary star:

RARE PHOTOGRAPH…Edna St. Vincent Millay raised her own vegetables at Steepletop, a former blueberry farm located near Austerlitz, New York that she owned with her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain. Photo is circa 1928. (Library of Congress)

Thurber noted that even her publisher, Harper & Sons, had to use an old photo of the publicity-shy poet for a new book release:

On the topic of photography, “Profiles” (written by film historian Terry Ramsaye) looked in on the quiet life of photography pioneer George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film.

A quintessential “mamma’s boy,” Eastman never married…

…and by all accounts died a celibate less than four years after this profile was written, taking his own life at age 77. Suffering from intense pain caused by a spinal disorder, Eastman shot himself in the heart on March 14, 1932, leaving a note which simply read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”

Odds and Ends

Other items of note from the Nov. 3 issue included a humorous piece by Rube Goldberg, “The Red Light District,” in which the president of the Blink Stop-Go Traffic Company summons a doctor to treat a strange malady. The doctor gets held up by traffic lights on the way to the “emergency,” and when he discovers the problem is only hives, he shoots the patient. The piece was headlined by this artwork, also by Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg is still known today thanks to his series of cartoons depicting deliberately complex contraptions invented to perform simple tasks, such as the “Self-Operating Napkin” below, from 1931:

1931 (Wikipedia)

Cartooning’s highest honor, The Reuben Award, was named after Goldberg, who was a longtime honorary president of the National Cartoonists Society.

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The Roaring 20s saw a rapid transformation of the New York skyline, with massive skyscrapers rising from the dust of old 18th and 19th century institutions. But few would signal the new age more than the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco landmark that would stand as the world’s tallest building for nearly a year (knocked from the top spot in May 1931 by the Empire State Building). Architecture critic George S. Chappell (“T-Square”) had this observation about the planned building:

EVOLUTION OF AN ICON…Stages in the design for the Chrysler building, from the July-December 1929 issue of Progressive Architecture.

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More from our advertisers…in the Nov. 3 issue Hawaii beckoned well-heeled New Yorkers who were contemplating the coming winter…

…and then there was this poorly executed ad for Kolster radios, the whole point seeming to be the drawing they commissioned from New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno:

And finally, a cartoon by Alan Dunn, who looked in on an Ivy League football huddle:

Next Time: Diamond Lil…

 

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

Hit of the Century

NINETY YEARS AGO, when former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur sat down to write The Front Page, they might have sensed they had a Broadway hit in the making, but probably had no idea their play would still grace a Broadway stage well into the 21st century.

August 25, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

The Front Page made a big splash on the Great White Way when it premiered on August 14, 1928 at Times Square Theatre. Featuring a story about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat, the play’s wisecracking, rapid-fire dialogue (which would become a staple of Hollywood’s screwball comedies), was a big hit with audiences, and with E.B. White, who reviewed the play in the Aug. 25, 1928 New Yorker:

DREAM TEAM…The Front Page was written by former Chicago reporters Ben Hecht (left) and Charles MacArthur (center) and produced by Jed Harris (at right, in a 1928 photo used on the cover of Time magazine). Hecht, an occasional New Yorker contributor, would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. Like Hecht, screenwriter/playwright MacArthur was friends with members of the Algonquin Round Table. He was married to actress Helen Hayes, with whom he adopted a son, James MacArthur (“Danno” on TV’s Hawaii 5-0). Harris was responsible for some of Broadway’s most successful productions in the ’20s and ’30s including Uncle Vanya, Our Town and The Crucible. (IMDB, Kentucky Digital Library, Time)
TROUBLE IN WINDY CITY…Set entirely in a dingy press room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, The Front Page featured reporters who passed the time playing poker and exchanging wisecracks—until a convicted killer escapes jail and makes things lively. Worried about his chances for re-election, the crooked Mayor, played by George Barbier, far left, confronts three reporters — Murphy (Willard Robertson), Endicott (Allen Jenkins), and McCue (William Foran). In the background is Claude Cooper, as the crooked Sheriff Hartman. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

White was so taken by the play, in fact, that he found it to be nearly perfect, like a scientific instrument of exacting precision. And considering how many times the play has been adapted to stage and screen (most recently on Broadway in 2016), he was probably right. It still plays pretty well after all these years:

WISE GUYS…Promotional photographs of Osgood Perkins as Walter Burns (left) and Lee Tracy as Hildy Johnson in the 1928 Broadway production of The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 
ENTER, STAGE RIGHT…Escaped prisoner Earl Williams (George Leach) surprises reporter Hildy Johnson (Lee Tracy) in The Front Page. (Theatre Magazine, August 1928) 

The play was restaged four more times on Broadway — 1946, 1969, 1986 and 2016 — the 2016 production starred Nathan Lane as Walter Burns, John Slattery as Hildy Johnson and John Goodman as Sheriff Hartman. Film adaptions included The Front Page in 1931 and His Girl Friday (directed by Howard Hawks) in 1940 — the latter added a twist to the play by changing the Hildy character to a woman, played by Rosalind Russell as the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Cary Grant). The play returned to the big screen in 1974 as The Front Page, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon as Hildy and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns.

Still Some Fight Left in Him

Although boxer Gene Tunney had retired from the ring, he was still making headlines fighting off a different foe: the paparazzi.

Tunney’s engagement to Connecticut socialite and Carnegie heiress Polly Lauder was front-page news across the country, and photographers were eager to capture a photo of the couple, who up until the announcement had enjoyed a mostly secret romance. James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” described the couple’s attempts to elude a persistent press:

MAYBE IT’S QUIETER OVER HERE…21-year-old Polly Lauder Tunney and 31-year-old Gene Tunney after marrying in Rome on Oct. 3, 1928. The marriage would last 50 years. (NY Times)

In September 1928 the couple took separate trips to Rome and married in a small ceremony on Oct. 3. Unfortunately, they attracted the attentions of Rome’s original paparazzi: According to the New York Times “the scene after the wedding looked mighty like a riot as clothes were torn and cameras smashed in a melee of photographers jostling to capture images of the couple.”

After traveling in Europe they returned to the U.S. and made their home in North Stamford, Connecticut, where they restored an 18th century farmhouse and raised Hereford cattle and sheep. They would be married 50 years until Tunney’s death at age 81 in 1978. Polly continued to live at her home in Stamford until her death in 2008 at age 100.

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Dorothy Recuperates

Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” signature at the end of the book review section was absent during part of the summer of 1928 as she was recuperating from an appendectomy. Fortunately her rapier wit remained intact when she returned in the Aug. 25 issue…

Dorothy Parker in 1928 (natedsanders.com)

…where she found the strength to skewer The Lion Tamer, the latest novel by romance writer E.M. Hull:

I’D RATHER BE IN SURGERY…E.M. Hull’s The Lion Tamer. Dodd, Mead and Co. 1928. (yesterdaysgallery.com)

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Long Before Starbucks

If you were a New Yorker in the 1920s, this cartoon by Rea Irvin would make perfect sense, because nearly everyone knew that Alice Foote MacDougall was the queen of New York’s coffee scene, a one-woman Starbucks of her day.

According to Jan Whitaker, writing for the blog Restaurant-ing Through History, MacDougall kept a carefully crafted persona. In numerous magazine stories crafted by her publicity agent, “she was widely known as the poor widow with three children who built a coffee wholesaling and restaurant empire on $38.”

MacDougall was actually from a distinguished New York City family, and her coffee wholesaling career began in 1909 after her husband’s death. Whitaker writes: “In the 1920s she was said to be the only woman expert in coffee grading and blending in the U.S. She opened her first eating place, The Little Coffee Shop, in Grand Central Station in New York in December 1919. Waffles were the specialty in her homey café which was decorated with a plate rail and shelves holding decorative china. (Evidently tips were good, because MacDougall had the nerve to charge her waitresses $10 a day to work there.) By 1927 she had signed a $1 million lease for her fifth coffee house, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street. Her places became known for their Italian-Spanish scene setting. The reason, she said, was that it provided a way to disguise long, narrow spaces.”

BEANS TO RICHES…Alice Foote MacDougall, ca. 1910. At right, Sevillia, at West Fifty-seventh Street, in the late 1920s. (restaurant-ingthroughhistory.com)
TIN GOLD…Canisters of Alice Foote MacDougall’s famed coffee, ca. 1927. (ruby lane.com)

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The Friendly Skies

E.B. White made another appearance in the Aug. 25 issue, this time with a poem describing his recent flight from London to Paris aboard an Imperial Airways trimotor biplane. If White seems to rhapsodize a bit here (especially to jaded fliers of the 21st century), it is understandable, considering that White’s flight to France was only 25 years removed from the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk. It was still something miraculous:

TOP, the Imperial Airways “Calcutta” trimotor flying boat on the Mediterranean, 1928. Below, the “Calcutta” moored on the River Thames in 1928. (Claude Boullevraye de Passillé / AP)

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Missing the Boys of Summer

The New Yorker continued to ignore the sport of baseball in its pages, even though it enthusiastically covered almost everything else: college football, hockey, tennis, golf, lacrosse, polo, rowing and yacht racing. Strange because the New York Yankees had one of the winningest lineups in baseball (Murderer’s Row, with sluggers Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig), had won the 1927 World Series, and were poised to win it again in 1928. Unless I missed something, the first mention of baseball in the 1928 New Yorker was this bit in Howard Brubaker’s Aug. 25 “Of All Things” column:

The Yankees would sweep the favored St. Louis Cardinals in the ’28 World Series.

From Our Advertisers

This creepy advertisement from the Aug. 25 issue comes courtesy of the Clark Lighting Company. The tagline, “Clark Always Works,” has a double meaning, the ad copy suggesting that a woman is so simple (described here as a “little minx”) that she will be captivated by the very flick of a lighter:

Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who was making light of a diet fad from the late 19th and early 20th century (hence the woman’s age and dress) made famous by Horace Fletcher, who was known as the “Great Masticator” for his diet that involved chewing each mouthful of food a minimum of 100 times. The cartoon’s caption reads: “Now masticate, Ermyne!”

Next Time: Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies…