One of the challenges in researching old New Yorker magazines is the frequent use of pseudonyms or simple initials at the end of columns and reviews. With enough digging I can usually determine the nom behind the plume.
Such is not the case with the New Yorker’s film critic of the late 1920s, who signed reviews “O.C.” It would be good to know a little about this person, since he or she held strong opinions about the condition of American cinema. I will continue to dig.
O.C.’s review in the April 7, 1928 issue concerned the release of We Americans, a film based on a Broadway play of the same name. Directed by Edward Sloman, it focused on the trials and tribulations of three first-generation American families: The Jewish Levines, the German Schmidts and the Italian Albertinis. The film followed each family through trial, tribulation and sacrifice as they left behind the Old World and joined the great “Melting Pot.”
In one of the storylines, the Levines lose a son, Phil, to the wartime trenches of France. In losing his life, Phil saves the life of the socially prominent Hugh Bradleigh, who in the end falls in love with Phil’s sister, Beth. In the film’s sentimental ending, the Levines and the Bradleighs meet one another for the first time at wedding of Hugh and Beth.
O.C. would have none of it:
Yes, this picture got under the reviewer’s skin. Now for the coup de grace:
Over in the book review section, Dorothy Parker was also experiencing heartburn over the latest work of that all-American man of letters, Sinclair Lewis.
Now that Parker had our attention regarding her misgivings of the future Nobel Laureate, she abandoned the polite prose and went in for the kill:
Wooden as the plaque itself
The New Yorker’s Lindbergh watch continued, this time at a ceremony during which the Woodrow Wilson Foundation presented its medal and $25,000 prize to Charles Lindbergh for his “contributions to international friendship” (in retrospect an ironic award, since Lindbergh would later become the spokesman for isolationism during the fascist terrors of the 1930s). The ceremony was a dull affair, but thanks to the magic of media it no doubt looked like a jolly time…
Better than iTunes
An invention from the late 1890s, piano rolls proved to be a popular diversion in the 1920s, so popular in fact that they warranted a regular review in the New Yorker, along with records and sheet music:
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One of the more curious series of advertisements to appear in the early New Yorker were these from the Chicago Tribune. Shameless in their boosterism, these ran during the editorship of Col. Robert R. McCormick, who was strongly associated with old right-wing politics and isolationist movements. The Tribune’s motto at this time was “The American Paper for Americans.”
Another ad that caught my eye was this one for Johnnie Walker cigarettes…I guess you’d better listen when a giant hand reaches down from the heavens and taps you on the shoulder. I love the resigned look on the face of his companion: “Oh dear, it’s that dreadful hand again…”
U.S. presidential elections have long provided fodder for the nation’s humorists, and the 1928 contest between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith was no exception.
In the March 31, 1928 issue of the New Yorker writer Frank Sullivan and cartoonist Al Frueh took particular delight in skewering the party nominating conventions. As Sullivan observed:
Regarding item No. 3, Sullivan was referring to Minnesota’s famed Mayo Clinic, and the related pride that was doubtless associated with the removal of an appendix from the wife of Al Smith, four-term governor of New York and nominee to lead the Democratic ticket.
The candidates could not have been more different. The first Catholic to be nominated for president, Al Smith was a crowd-loving, charismatic personality, a Tammany Hall politician and a committed “wet” who opposed Prohibition. He attracted strong support from Catholics, women, drinkers and those who were tired of the crime and corruption associated with dry America.
Hoover, on the other hand, was deliberately dull and humorless, as stiff as his heavily starched collars and committed to keeping the country dry. But the economy under fellow Republican Calvin Coolidge was booming, and it didn’t hurt that many Protestants believed the Catholic Church would dictate Al Smith’s policies if he were elected. Sullivan had some fun with this perceived religious prejudice:
In light of the recent 2016 elections and the prominence of “Islamophobia” in the political rhetoric, Sullivan’s joke regarding the role of “Mohammedans” in the 1928 election is noteworthy:
Illustrations by Al Frueh, both top and bottom, aptly captured the picture Sullivan painted of the nominating process:
Al Smith would lose in a landslide. Journalists at the time attributed his defeat to the three P’s: Prohibition, Prejudice and Prosperity. Rural voters, who favored Hoover, also had a bigger say than their urban brethren: Republicans would benefit from a failure to reapportion Congress and the electoral college following the 1920 census, which had registered a 15 percent increase in the urban population. After the election, Smith became the president of Empire State Inc., the corporation that would build the the Empire State Building in 1930-31.
In his piece Sullivan also took at parting shot at President Coolidge…
…as did cartoonist J. Price in the same issue…
For reference, the image that inspired Price:
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New Yorker Monotypes
Another humorist who regularly contributed to the New Yorker was Baird Leonard, who beginning with the second issue of the magazine (Feb. 28, 1925) wrote a series titled “Metropolitan Monotypes.” Over five years and 36 installments Leonard wrote free-verse characterizations of various New York “types,” from debutantes to aesthetes to “The Anglomaniac” as described below in this installment from March 31, 1928:
As I’ve noted before, Anglophilia oozed from the New Yorker ads, particularly those directed at the male reader (France was a common lure in ads for women). Every issue from the 1920s is rife with examples, but sticking to the March 31 issue we find this ad employing the British slang for cigarettes to market a silly, dog-shaped cigarette case to fashionable women:
In the same issue this ad from Macy’s appealed to participants of a famous cultural event for the posh set—the annual Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue. A tradition dating back to the 1870s, in its first decades the “parade” was a display of wealth and beauty, as the well-to-do strolled from church to church to check out various floral displays.
The parade has changed considerably over the years, with high fashion given over to camp as the event has become far more democratic…
In 1928, the poor and middle classes were merely observers of the passing parade, perhaps hoping to learn something about the latest fashions. The April 14 “Talk of the Town” suggested as much:
And finally, our cartoon comes courtesy of Leonard Dove, who explores the lighter side of boxing…
Lux Toilet Soap was launched in the United States in 1925 by its British parent company, Lever Brothers, which had been making soap since 1899. To capture the hearts and pocketbooks of American women, the company launched an advertising blitz that featured advertisements in a number of magazines including the New Yorker.
The earliest ads appealed to upscale women who saw the French as arbiters of taste and style. In the following Lux ad (from the Feb. 5, 1927 New Yorker), note that every paragraph and headline includes the words France or French:
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The big blitz came in 1928, when Lux pioneered the use of female celebrity endorsements on a mass scale. The campaign focused more on the roles played by Broadway and movie stars than on the product itself. The March 24, 1928 issue of the New Yorker featured these ads splashed across two center spreads.
The captions I have provided below the ads give brief information on each actress. Note that many of these actresses did stints with Broadway’s popular Ziegfeld Follies. Most also had long lives, including Mary Ellis, who lived in three centuries, sang with Caruso, and died at age 105.
Click Images to Enlarge
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Over the years dozens of famous actresses would appear in colorful ads singing the praises of Lux soap…
A final note. Lever Brothers began selling Lux soap in India in 1909, years before it was introduced in the U.S., and through the decades Bollywood actresses were prominently featured in their advertising…
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Meanwhile, back on earth…
The March 17, 1928 “Talk of the Town” marveled at the rising structure between Madison and Park avenues that would become the New York Life Building. Designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the Woolworth Building, its gilded roof, consisting of 25,000 gold-leaf tiles, remains an iconic Manhattan landmark.
From 1837–1889, the site was occupied by the Union Depot, a concert garden, and P.T Barnum’s Hippodrome. Until 1925, the site housed the first two Madison Square Gardens, a memory that lingered amidst the city’s rapidly changing skyline…
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Following the lead of a Roosevelt Hotel advertisement in a previous issue, Macy’s Department Store also called out the New Yorker’s popular nightlife columnist “Lipstick” (Lois Long) in this ad featured in the March 17 issue…
Our cartoon from the March 17 issue explored the hurried life of the idle rich, as depicted by Lois Long’s husband, Peter Arno…
Landmark in Name Only
In the March 24, 1928 issue another building caught the attention of the magazine–a six-story structure designed by theatrical scenic artist and architect Joseph Urban for William Randolph Hearst. The International Magazine Building was completed in 1928 to house the 12 magazines Hearst owned at the time.
An important monument in the architectural heritage of New York, the building was designated as a Landmark Site by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1988. The six-story International Magazine Building was originally built to serve as the base for a proposed skyscraper, but the construction of the tower was postponed due to the Great Depression. The new tower addition by Norman Foster was finally completed nearly eighty years later, in 2006. It is probably not what either Hearst or Urban had in mind in 1928:
And finally, cartoonist Leonard Dove listens in on some tea time chatter…
Perhaps no other hairstyle has a stronger link to a historical period than the “bob cut,” associated not only with the flapper lifestyle in the 1920s but with women in general who wished to signal their independence from old cultural norms that defined femininity.
Women in Western cultures typically wore their hair long, but in the early years of the 20th century a few women of prominence began to flout convention and wear their hair in a bobbed style, including French actress Polaire, who began wearing her hair short in the 1890s; English socialite Lady Diana Cooper, who wore her hair short as a child and continued to do so as an adult; and dancer Irene Castle, who unveiled her “Castle Bob” to Americans in 1915. By 1920 the style was all the rage.
Another famous bobbed flapper of the 1920s was the New Yorker‘s own Lois Long, who wrote under the pseudonym “Lipstick” for her nightlife column “Tables For Two,” but signed her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) with a simple “L.L.” Long was also a regular unsigned contributor to “The Talk of the Town,” and is credited as one the New Yorker’s early writers who gave the magazine its “voice.”
In the March 10, 1928 issue Long wrote in “On and Off the Avenue” about the challenges in maintaining her bobbed hairstyle:
Many women in the 1920s preferred to have a permanent wave treatment applied to their bob, which usually involved the application of high heat via a complex array of wires and hot rollers. In the March 10 issue, this ad promoted an alternative “cool method”…
…and in the March 17, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, the Ace Comb company made a pitch to improve its market share by touting their hard rubber combs as ideal for the “ragged bob”…
…and for some further context on all things bobbed, following are some images gleaned from glamourdaze.com, including a page from a 1920s movie magazine featuring Paramount’s bobbed stars; a 1920s salon advertisement promoting bobs for all ages; and finally, a helpful reference card from the American Hairdresser, circa 1924…
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A New Plot for Billy Haines
William “Billy” Haines was a number one male box office draw in the 1920s, and throughout the decade was typecast in a number of comic roles as a conceited baseball player (Slide, Kelly, Slide), conceited cadet (West Point), conceited football star (Brown of Harvard), conceited golfer (Spring Fever), and conceited polo player (The Smart Set). It was that last picture that left the New Yorker wanting Haines to consider taking a different approach in his next picture:
Haines would eventually escape being typecast as a wisecracking, arrogant leading man, not by choosing different roles but by quitting acting altogether in 1935. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, had demanded Haines deny his gay lifestyle (which he had lived quite openly despite the times) and marry a woman for appearances. Haines went on to become a successful interior designer, with clients ranging from Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
In our featured cartoon from March 10, 1928, Helen Hokinson spies on her famous spinsters passing the time with a Ouija board:
It what would become a longstanding tradition, the New Yorker marked its third anniversary by featuring the original cover illustration (by Rea Irvin) from Issue No. 1. The New Yorker was a very different magazine by its third year, fat with advertising and its editorial content bolstered by such talents as Peter Arno, E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
Parker livened up the magazine’s books section, mincing few words as she took on writers both great and not so great.
In the latter category was Aimee Semple McPherson, a 1920s forerunner of today’s glitzy televangelists. In her column “Reading and Writing,” Parker took aim at McPherson — “Our Lady of the Loud-speaker” — who had just published a book titled In the Service of the King.
McPherson was a Pentecostal-style preacher who practiced “speaking in tongues” and faith healing in her services, which drew huge crowds at revival events between 1919 and 1922. She took to the radio in the early 1920s and in 1923 she based her ministry in Los Angeles at her newly completed Angelus Temple, which served as the center of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
McPherson’s book detailed her conversion and her various hardships, including her mysterious “kidnapping” in 1926. Parker was having none of it:
Parker was referring to events beginning on May 18, 1926, when the evangelist went to Venice Beach for a swim and went missing. Some thought she had drown, others claimed they saw a “sea monster” in the area. McPherson reemerged in June on the Mexico-Arizona border, claiming she had been kidnapped and held captive by three strangers.
Numerous allegations of illicit love affairs targeted McPherson during her years of fame, so some were inclined to believe she went missing in order to engage in a love affair with her sound engineer.
Upon her return to Los Angeles she was greeted by a huge crowd (est. 30,000 to 50,000) that paraded her back to the Angelus Temple. However many others in the city found McPherson’s homecoming gaudy and annoying. A grand jury was subsequently convened to determine if evidence of a kidnapping could be found, but the court soon turned its focus to McPherson herself to determine if she had faked the kidnapping. Parker thought the condition of the preacher’s shoes, after a long trek through the desert, were evidence enough of a sham:
McPherson, who was married three times and twice divorced, died in September 1944 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. She was 53. Her son Rolf took over the ministry after her death. Today McPherson’s Foursquare Church has a worldwide membership of about 8 million. It is still based in Los Angeles.
But How Do I Look?
The Feb. 25 issue profiled the young Jascha Heifetz, a Russian-born violin prodigy who seemed more interested in how he looked than in how he performed. An excerpt:
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Speaking of fashion, one of the world’s greatest fashion designers, Paul Poiret, was seeing hard times in the late 1920s with his designs losing popularity in his native France and his formidable fashion empire on the brink of collapse. But Francophile New Yorkers, always hungry for French fashion, greeted Poiret with open arms when he arrived in the city in the fall of 1927.
It is something of a surprise, however, to find this advertisement in the Feb. 25 issue in which Poiret endorses Rayon, a man-made substitute for silk. We don’t usually associate synthetics with haute couture, but then again maybe Poiret just needed the money. Better living through chemistry, as they say…
Also in the issue was a sad, Prohibition-era advertisement that extolled the virtues of an oxymoronic “non-alcoholic vermouth”…
And finally from the Feb. 25 issue, a cartoon by Carl Rose…
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In the March 3 issue “The Talk of the Town” discovered the miracle of television during a visit to the Bell Telephone laboratories.
Lab researchers demonstrated a “receiving grid” with a tiny screen that displayed images broadcast across the expanse of an auditorium:
Another glimpse into the future in the March 3 issue came courtesy illustrator Al Frueh, who offered this fanciful look at the skyscraper of tomorrow:
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“Profile” featured the first installment of a four-part article (by Niven Busch Jr.) on a man who put America on wheels and into traffic jams. Excerpts:
And finally, an analogy that would take on new meaning after the market crash…
Before screenwriter Niven Busch headed to Hollywood in 1931, he cut his teeth as writer for the New Yorker, contributing a series of profiles (later compiled in Twenty-one Americans) as well as an intermittent series from May 1927 to Feb. 1930 on New York’s Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Always careful to shield the identity of speakeasy owners and patrons, Busch described the often less-than-glamorous digs of New York’s illegal watering holes. In a speakeasy called “The No Trump” (referring to card-playing, and not a future president), two Irish brothers took turns mixing drinks “on a kitchen table in a cubbyhole” while Busch sat in a darkened bar and listened in on a conversation coming from the adjoining “bridge room”…
Busch also described his visit to the “Circus Speakeasy,” operated by a man who “travelled for 21 years with the Ringling Circus”…
In his later years as a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood, Busch would script movies ranging from The Man With Two Faces (1934) starring Edward G. Robinson, to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with Lana Turner.
One of the prominent voices of the unsigned “Talk of the Town,” humorist E.B. White was also a regular contributor of short pieces in the New Yorker, such as the following which described a mistaken encounter on an overnight train:
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Another way to calm the jitters
If you couldn’t legally (or illegally) buy Johnny Walker Scotch whisky in 1928, you had to settle for their brand of “vacuumed-cleaned, extremely mild” cigarettes, which were apparently sold as late as the 1950s…
And to get a taste of what was showing at the local cinemas, I’ve included this page-and-third spread of movie and theatre ads from the back pages. Note the film Sunrise featured prominently at the top left-hand corner.
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston, this 1927 silent romantic drama, directed by F.W. Murnau, used the new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making it one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. Sunrise (full title: The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) won the Academy Award in the category “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, and Gaynor won the first Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.” Sunrise is considered one of the greatest films of the silent era and even today is widely considered a masterpiece.
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And finally, more hijinks from the moneyed classes, courtesy of Peter Arno:
Dorothy Parker had a particular aversion to intellectual snobs, and in the Feb. 11, 1928 issue she wrote that the city had been beset with “Literary Rotarians” in search of bookish gatherings attended by people who, according to Parker, “looked as if they had been scraped out of drains.”
I would have to say Parker was on firm ground here. Her own writing was clear and unaffected, and her tastes were democratic (she enjoyed and even wrote about comic strips). So when the book dandies crossed her path, there was trouble:
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Parker continued, recalling the trauma she once endured at a literary association dinner:
Thumb on the Scale of Justice
An unfortunate aspect of American life is how the law is selectively applied to favor those in power. Such was the case of Florence Knapp, who was elected as New York’s Secretary of State in 1924. After leaving office in 1926, she was accused of maladministration, and two years later was convicted of grand larceny while in office—Knapp put her stepdaughter’s name on the state payroll during the administration of the 1925 census, then cashed the checks herself, apparently using the funds to purchase clothes.
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In a special article for the New Yorker, contributing writer Hugh O’Connor did not disagree with Knapp’s guilt, but found the hypocrisy of her accusers hard to stomach. Some excerpts:
Just in case anyone thought this was solely a Republican hit job, O’Connor concluded that the other side was just as complicit in keeping women from high office:
For the record, Knapp was the last Secretary of State elected to that office in New York. After Knapp the office became appointive by the governor, and remains so today. It would be 50 years until another woman would be elected to a statewide office in New York.
Opening Eyes to Red Russia
The New Yorker encouraged open-minded readers to check out a new exhibition on Soviet Russia that offered an alternative vision of a young country beset by famine and political violence:
The exhibition featured hand-carved toys probably similar to these:
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Also featured were pieces of “boldly propagandistic china.” Below are some examples of period pieces, not necessarily featured in the exhibition but perhaps give some idea of what New Yorkers were viewing in 1928. They range from kitschy…
…to the stunningly avant garde….
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Woof for Westminster
The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was abuzz with anticipation for the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. The article noted that the record price paid for a dog was $9,500 (roughly equivalent to $133,000 today). By comparison, in 2014 a Chinese property developer paid nearly $2 million for a Tibetan mastiff puppy.
Note how the writer of the “Talk” piece already knows that the “wire-haired terrier” has the inside track to victory:
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Advertisers in the New Yorker also had Westminster fever, including sporting goods purveyor Abercrombie & Fitch (note the breed of the tartan-clad dog):
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I found this advertisement in the back pages interesting because it called out the New Yorker’s Lois Long, who wrote her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” under the pseudonym “Lipstick.” The drawing for the ad was provided by Rea Irvin, the artist who gave the magazine its signature look.
In her nightlife column Long played coy with her readers, careful not to reveal her true identity. She teased about being a “short squat maiden of forty,” but when she married cartoonist and fellow New Yorker contributor Peter Arno in August 1927, word was out about her true identity. Irvin’s drawing aptly captures Long in her early years at the New Yorker, on a writer’s salary but nevertheless fashionably dressed, partying all night and heading home with the rising sun.
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And finally, a great illustration that graced the bottom of the “Talk” section. If anyone knows the artist, please comment!