Prohibition posed one the biggest challenges to the life of an urban sophisticate in the 1920s, but also provided opportunities for sophisticated behavior through the flaunting of the Volstead Act.
“The Talk of the Town” for March 21, 1925 opens with an attack on the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Emory C. Buckner. He took office with the promise to “debunk” Prohibition enforcement by collecting evidence of liquor sales in nightclubs and speakeasies. Bypassing both the police and the Bureau of Prohibition, he would file injunctions in federal court and have the offending establishments padlocked for up to a year as a “public nuisance.”
(In “The Hour Glass” section of the same issue, the magazine observes that “Minister’s sons always go one way or the other, mostly the other.” It also notes that along with William Jennings Bryan, “Nebraska gave Emory Buckner to the Union.”)
According to the book Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael Lerner, Buckner hoped that his method would break the endless cycle of arrests, plea bargains and fines that had come to define prohibition. His approach took the focus off the city’s working class; rather than throwing bartenders into jail, he would threaten owners and landlords with financial losses and would “pinch the pocketbook of the man higher up.”
Lerner writes that Buckner targeted high-profile nightclubs and speakeasies in the upscale theater district rather than focusing on working class saloons that had been previously singled out by the dry lobby. The goal was to “hold the city’s more cosmopolitan social circles accountable for their drinking.”
In other words, this hit The New Yorker readership, and its writers and editors, right where they lived.
“The Talk of the Town” suggested that Buckner’s motivation was self-promotion, and predicted that his padlocking tactic would backfire, since previous attempts at padlocking actually lent “prestige” to the closed establishments.
That prediction would indeed become true. Instead of curtailing liquor consumption, Lerner writes that the padlocking actually increased the allure of nightclubs: “The leading lady of New York’s nightlife, Texas Guinan, went so far as to adopt the padlock as her personal trademark.”
Nevertheless, the “Talk of the Town” entry concluded with wistful remembrances of pre-Prohibition days, the Hoffman House taproom and the (Maxfield Parrish) Old King Cole mural above the Knickerbocker Bar, now “reposing disconsolately in the gloom of a warehouse.”
The writer would be happy to know that today the Maxfield Parrish mural (recently restored) graces The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel (if you are in NYC you should put on a nice jacket and grab an old school martini there).
A final tidbit from Gotham magazine regarding the mural: “John Jacob Astor IV originally opened the St. Regis Hotel in 1904. Two years later, he commissioned the Old King Cole mural for his Knickerbocker hotel. Apparently Parrish, a Quaker, was reluctant to accept the gig, until Astor upped the offer to $5,000. Astor was tragically lost aboard the Titanic in 1912. And the Parrish mural was installed at The King Cole Bar at the St. Regis in 1932.”
Gotham magazine also offers a secret about the mural revealed at an unveiling following the restoration: under his regal robe, King Cole is breaking wind, therefore the smirks of the jesters.
This is what I love about history—its endless digressions.
Issue #4, March 14, 1925 opened with “The Talk of the Town,” the lead item noting that New York was “agog about the possible visit of Queen Marie of Rumania,” and that the queen was supposedly offered a contract by a newspaper to write her impressions of the United States.
Born into the British royal family, Queen Marie was titled Princess Marie of Edinburgh at birth. After refusing a proposal from her cousin, the future King George V, she was chosen as the future wife of Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I, in 1892 (she was the last Queen consort of Romania, and her trip to the U.S. would prove to be the last months of her reign).
An account in the Frontier Times in 1968 describes the visit this way:
When Queen Marie first announced her intention of making a trip to America, she stated that her general purpose was a sort of educational good will tour; but that her specific purpose was to dedicate a museum at Maryhill, Washington…She sailed from Cherbourg (France) on October 12, 1926, on the Leviathan, accompanied by her son, Nicholas, and her daughter, Ileana; her special aide, Major Stanley Washburn; her close friend, Loie Fuller, the ballet dancer; six personal attendants; several European dignitaries; about one hundred pieces of baggage—and her dog.
For publicity, the timing was perfect. Front page news was scarce, and the Queen’s visit was “manna from heaven” for the newspapers, and a field day for the reporters—who played up the trip in great style.
Queen Marie had contracted with the North American Newspaper Alliance to write a series of articles ranging from “Why I Came to America” to “My Impressions of America.” About six of such articles were published; and as they ran 2,000 words each, one suspects she must have had a ghost writer—and there was one such in her party.
In her syndicated articles she gave a variety of reasons why she came to America—which might have been condensed into a desire to see the country first-hand, and find out how its people lived. She wanted to see almost every object of interest—Pikes Peak, the Everglades, farmers, Indians, washing machines and rodeos; and wanted to ride a horse. She spoke of steel mills, skyscrapers, big trees and tombs of famous men. Particularly she wanted to see American kitchens, and find out if the occupants were as good looking as they appeared to be in linoleum advertisements…
However, the reasons advanced by some who clearly were not in sympathy with the Queen’s visit, were not so altruistic. One newspaper was of the opinion that the real purpose of the trip was to find a rich American husband for Ileana…
“The Talk of the Town” also featured a brief item on “vaudeville headliner” Harry Houdini and his “denunciations of Marjorie.”
This is in reference to a rivalry between a Bostonian, Mina Crandon (known as “Margery the Medium”) and magician Harry Houdini, who called himself “the scourge of spirit mediums.”
The 1920’s marked the height of America’s obsession with the paranormal—the “spirit world”–and Margery was a rock star among the many competing spiritualists of the day. The most famous of her followers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Doyle was so convinced of her powers that he recommended her to the editors of Scientific American. The magazine was offering a $2,500 prize to the first medium who could verifiably demonstrate (to an investigative committee) a “visual psychic manifestation.”
When the committee reported it found no trickery in Margery’s methods, the outraged Houdini cancelled his upcoming shows and headed to Boston with the aim of personally debunking the medium at a seance.
In an article by Robert Love posted on Mental Floss, he relates what happened next when Houdini arrived at her Lime Street apartment:
Margery greeted the panel and took her seat within a three-sided Chinese screen, the lights dimmed. Soon enough, an eerie whistling filled the room. On cue, the spirit of Walter (Margery’s dead brother) whispered his arrival, even touching Houdini on the inside of his right leg. After a break, he ordered an electric bell enclosed in a wooden box brought to Houdini’s feet. Then Walter levitated a megaphone and boomed: “Have Houdini tell me where to throw it.”
“Toward me,” Houdini said, and the megaphone flew through the air and crashed in front of him. That was just the beginning. Throughout the evening, Walter produced a sequence of metaphysical spectacles, ringing the bell box on command and tipping over the wooden screen.
Houdini had done his homework. He knew that Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery’s husband, always sat on her right. (A Harvard-educated surgeon, Crandon was her greatest promoter, often showing visitors nude photographs of his wife in séance delicté). Houdini also guessed correctly that he would be seated at her left in the circle, with hands joined, feet and legs touching. In preparation for the evening, Houdini wore a tight bandage under his right knee all day; it was so painful it made his skin tender to even the slightest touch. The heightened sensitivity paid off. He could feel Margery twist and flex in the dark as she moved her left ankle slightly to get to the bell box under the table. Later, he felt her shift again to tip the Chinese screen with her foot. The flying megaphone stumped Houdini for a few hours, but he eventually figured out that Margery had placed it on her head, dunce-cap-style, with a momentarily free hand. She then jerked her head in his direction to send it crashing to the floor.
“I’ve got her,” he said when the evening was over. “All fraud. Every bit of it. One more sitting and I will be ready to expose everything.”
A second séance at a Boston hotel featured a levitating table. Houdini reached out in the dark and found Margery’s head lifting the table from beneath. He again felt her legs move as she reached to ring the bell box. “The slickest ruse I ever detected,” Houdini said later, in something close to admiration.
Other celebrities of the time are found in the issue’s pages. The section “In Our Midst” tells of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda visiting Rome, and that the author was nearly finished with a novel called “The Great Braxton” (which would actually be titled “The Great Gatsby”). Another item noted that Eugene O’Neill was vacationing in Bermuda.
The “Profile” featured boxer Jack Dempsey, and “Books” announced the publication of A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young.
The “Hourglass” mentions the antics of Gutzon Borglum, who had been sculpting a tribute to the Confederacy on Georgia’s Stone Mountain.
The “antics,” specifically, concerned Borglum’s famed temper and his penchant for smashing completed sculptures in fits of rage. He would later go on to sculpt the monument at Mt. Rushmore.
Then there’s an article by “The Professor” on the Ziegfeld Follies that features this illustration:
The author concludes, “I forget whether it was a good show or not, but as a barometer of New York, it can’t be excelled.”
The “Motion Pictures” section featured a brief mention of “Mr. Hay’s” moral crusade against plays and movies. Hays would later lend his name to the The Production Code of 1930, known to most as the “Hays Code.”
Finally, if you really want to get a sense of how times have changed, check out the issue’s back page ad, and the suggested look for a “University man:”
You need not read far into Issue #1 before you realize how utterly distant this world is from our own. Launched in the midst of the Jazz Age, the magazine assumed its readers to be bourgeois (judging from the ads), cosmopolitan, Anglo- and/or Francophile, Ivy- or private school-educated and with enough disposable income to strike the disinterested pose of the cover mascot, Eustace Tilley.
Issue No. 1, Feb. 21, 1925, opened with a section titled “Of All Things,” and these first words:
Right next door to the Follies, some young adventurer has opened a penny peep-show where you can see five hundred and fifty glorified young women for what Mr. Ziegfeld charges for his much smaller collection.
The section concluded with a manifesto by the magazine’s founder and editor-in-chief, Harold Ross, who famously proclaimed, “It has announced that it is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.”
There is scant advertising in the slim first issues (No. 1 is just 32 pages plus cover). In an article written for the 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier explains how it was first funded:
After returning to the States, in 1919, he (Ross) edited a short-lived version of Stars & Stripes for veterans and became a New York night-life figure known for carrying around a dummy of his still unnamed magazine and talking about it endlessly. When he finally published the first issue of The New Yorker, ninety years ago, he paid for it partly himself. Nearly half the magazine’s original funding was a twenty-one-thousand-dollar stake put up by Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, and their friend Hawley Truax. Raoul Fleischmann, a baking heir and almost millionaire whom Ross had met through mutual friends, supplied another twenty-five thousand.
Harold Ross’s involvement in World War I figured prominently in the origins of the New Yorker. It was during his time at Stars & Stripes that he met Alexander Woollcott, who was already an established New York theater critic.
At this time Ross also met Jane Grant, who was serving in the YMCA entertainment corps and was a frequent visitor to the Star & Stripes offices.
I highly recommend Thomas Kunkel’s Ross biography, Genius in Disguise, for a complete account of the magazine’s early days.
It took a few issues for the editors to sort out regular features and their order of appearance. The opening section of Issue No. 1 featured the famous Rea Irvin masthead—flanked by Eustace Tilley and the night owl—and Irvin’s distinctive typeface that would introduce “The Talk of Town” for many issues to come. However in Issue No. 1 “Of All Things” appeared under the masthead, followed by “Talk of the Town” which was (for the first and last time) under this banner:
The magazine’s second issue, Feb. 28, paired the Eustace Tilley masthead with “The Talk of the Town” for its opening section, but the March 7 issue paired it with “Behind the News” for the opening section.
With the March 14th issue, the editors decided to permanently install “The Talk of the Town” below the masthead in the lead section, relegating “Of All Things” and “Behind the News” to inside pages.
For the sake of comparison, here is the current 2015 version:
A number of short-lived regular features made their appearance in these early issues: “The Story of Manhattankind” offered drawings by Herb Roth and tongue-in-cheek accounts of early Manhattan life that featured cartoonish Indians and bumbling settlers. It is here where the magazine took its first of many shots at William Randolph Hearst, perceived rival and publisher of Cosmopolitan (more of a literary magazine in 1925, and not the sex tips and cleavage rag it is today).
“Profiles” were established at the start, the first issue featuring opera maestro Giulo Gatti-Casazza, the second issue taking aim at “Princess” Alice Roosevelt Longworth, and the third issue probing New York Times managing editor Carr Vatell Van Anda. “In Our Midst” featured local celebrity sightings and gossip, such as actress Tallulah Bankhead and writer Edna Ferber in Issue 3 (March 7).
The cartoons from the very beginning were famously droll, such as this illustration by Alfred Leete…
…but a few recall an earlier style in which the action is captioned (like old Punch cartoons) in a more formal manner. The first issue featured an Ethel Plummer cartoon of an “uncle” and a “flapper” (niece or a mistress?) looking at a theater bill for The Wages of Sin:
Uncle: Poor girls, so few get their wages.
Flapper: So few get their sin, darn it!
A section titled “The Hour Glass” offered short, casual accounts of various local personalities. “Lyrics from a Pekinese” was another recurring feature by writer Arthur Gutterman, who was known for his silly poems.
Music reviews in early issues were almost entirely devoted to classical, live performances. Fritz Kreisler’s violin mastery was featured prominently in the first issue, while it wasn’t until the third issue that jazz was briefly mentioned (it was becoming “respectable” in some concert halls). It was reported that violinist Damuel Dushkin ended his performance with selections from George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The “Art” section featured an exhibition of British paintings at the Central Art Galleries, and a show by the Society of Independent Artists (paintings sell from 24 to 99 dollars), at the Waldorf Hotel (soon to be razed and replaced by the Empire State Building). Joseph Stella was at the Dudensing Galleries, described as a “gifted young American.”
“Motion Pictures” looked at Greed (Frank Norris’s McTeugue transferred to the screen), which was playing on the Loew Circuit; The Lost World at the Astor (“Through camera trickery, dinosaurs and other beasts of the prehistoric past live again. Interesting because it proves that the camera is a liar”); the “splendid” German-made The Last Laugh by Carl Mayer (of Dr. Caligari fame) and The Salvation Hunters by Josef Von Sternberg. The magazine called it “deadly monotonous”…”the characters just sit around and think.” German actor Emil Jannings was a favorite, and would be lauded in subsequent issues.
The first issue closed with an ad from Royal Cord Balloon Tires. Later issues would depend heavily on advertising revenue from auto manufacturers.
The early issues also featured two-page-drawings that illustrated some event described in the opening section. The Feb. 28 issue (#2), mentioned that Ciro’s opened with the Mary Hay and Clifton Webb dancing team:
As this was the age of Prohibition, there was a notable absence of alcohol in ads and even in print articles, although references are made to “speakeasies” and later issues would report black market prices for liquor.
The second issue’s “Talk of the Town” further elaborated on the magazine’s manifesto:
And we won’t aim to please. If we happen to please we will not apologize, but we are not in the vast army of bores struggling frantically to give people what they want.
We may not do much for the magazine world. We don’t know that we’re aiming to. But of one thing we feel quite sure: if we ever run out of things to say, just for the fun of saying them, we expect to close up this little playhouse and go to work.
The “Theatre” section of Issue No. 2 featured James Joyce’s Exiles at the Neighborhood Theatre, while a section titled “And They Do Say” featured the first (of the many subsequent references) to Eddie Cantor’s various comings and goings. It was reported Cantor left for Boston in his “Kid Boot” and that altercations between Cantor and veteran stage actress Jobyna Howland “kept 42nd Street nervous for weeks.”
Issue #2 marked the first appearance of a recurring column filler labeled “The Optimist.” It went as follows:
Pop: A man who thinks he can make it in par.
Johnny: What is an optimist, Pop?
“Books” featured a review of Ford Madox Ford’s “Some Do Not…” The reviewer Harry Este Dounce (under the nom de plume “Touchstone”) called it “as gratuitously black-biled a work of art as we ever saw.”
Under “Washington Notes” were the first of many humorous references to President Calvin Coolidge, his hayseed habits and his extreme frugality. Below, a drawing by Miguel Covarrubias (a regular contributor beginning with the first issue) in March 14 issue:
Another Covarrubias illustration in Issue # 3 (March 7) depicted journalist Heywood Broun (old Ross friend and Algonquin Round Table stalwart) hard at work on his column for the New York World:
About a year ago I had this notion that I would read every issue of The New Yorker. I am a bit obsessive-compulsive, a condition I have successfully reined in with the deliberate exception of two pursuits—gardening/landscaping and reading history. This is about the latter.
My New Yorker binge began after I finished reading Antony Beevor’s The Second World War. It got me thinking about the 30 years of madness that reigned in Europe in the first half of the 20th century, and why a continent with such riches in art, architecture, music, philosophy and literature would descend into a period of self-destruction that would lead to the annihilation of 60 million people and the obliteration of entire towns, cities and cultures.
It was in this time frame that an American veteran of the First World War, Harold Ross, would start a magazine that would be known for “gaiety, wit, and satire.” For purposes of this blog, it is through this particular lens—the New Yorker magazine—that I write about 20th century history and chart the course of a publication that, although based safely on the other side of the Atlantic, will begin to find its serious side as the world once again descends into madness.
For background I’ve read some good first-person accounts of the period, including William Shirer’s series on the 20th century (and particularly his writings on Nazi Germany); and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s unfinished trilogy describing his walk across Europe (roughly following the Danube) in the early 1930s that offers a fascinating, ground-level view of a world that would soon vanish.
By reading back issues of the New Yorker I hope to gain some new insights or perspectives on history. A deep reading of the articles and advertisements can have the effect of transporting one back in time, at least in terms of a mindset, although you cannot escape feeling omniscient in your foreknowledge of coming events, such as this advertisement in the May 8, 1937 issue:
When I come across a cheeky account in The New Yorker’s “Of All Things” section about a couple of buffoons named Hitler and Mussolini, I know the terrible truth that awaits my fellow readers. But it’s not all doom and gloom, for along the way you also get to witness the advent of broadcast radio and sound in motion pictures, the evolution of the automobile, the birth of passenger airline service and the transformation of a city that bulldozes the 19th century and replaces it with soaring towers.
So pretend you are a young, social climbing cosmopolitan in mid-1920s New York, and this little magazine comes along written just for you—not stuffy like the old Town & Country or serious in the Atlantic vein—it is for you, a witty young Jazz Age striver living in the greatest city on earth.
(To read another account of my New Yorker project, see my article posted at Not Even Past).