Before we jump into the autumn issues of 1925, I want to briefly look back at The New Yorker’s first summer, when the magazine limped along week to week but managed to survive thanks to a fortuitous meeting between Harold Ross and Raoul Fleischmann during a bridge game.
According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family, and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).
The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine).
Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleishmann agreed to give the magazine another go.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the magazine struggled mightily through the summer, with thin issues featuring in-house promotional ads that claimed the most prime advertising spots (including inside front and back covers).
However, the house ads were clever and fun to read, as Kunkel explains:
To help camouflage the dearth of advertising, Ross asked (New Yorker humor writer) Corey Ford to come up with some promotional, or “house” ads. Ford’s response was the “Making of the Magazine” series, which not only represented some of the cleverest writing in the 1925 New Yorker but went a long way toward establishing the magazine’s droll, self-deprecating tone… Each article was accompanied by a Johann Bull illustration featuring the ubiquitous (Eustace) Tilley, who was based on the Rea Irvin dandy (who was featured on the magazine’s first cover). Ford had simply made up the moniker (“’Tilley’ was the name of a maiden aunt,” he explained, “and I chose ‘Eustace’ because it sounded euphonious”), and soon it came to be identified with Irvin’s monocled figure. Tilley began turning up by name in Talk items and Ross listed him in the telephone directory.
More than 20 of these house ads were featured through the end of 1925. What follows are the first ads in the series from issues dated August 8, 15, 22, 29.
In a previous post I briefly looked at the Algonquin Round Table–writers, critics, artists, some of them New Yorker contributors–who had been exchanging witticisms over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel since 1919.
Like so many things connected to The New Yorker, Alexander Woollcott was at the center of the famed table’s origin story. According to Wikipedia, the group that would become the Round Table began meeting as the result of a practical joke carried out by theatrical press agent John Peter Toohey, who was annoyed at Woollcott (a New York Times drama critic) for refusing to plug one of his clients (Eugene O’Neill) in his column. Toohey organized a luncheon supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from World War I, where he had been a correspondent for Stars and Stripes (and where Woollcott first met Harold Ross and Jane Grant). Instead Toohey used the occasion to poke fun at Woollcott on a number of fronts, including his long-winded war stories. Woollcott’s enjoyment of the joke and the success of the event prompted Toohey to suggest that the group meet every day at the Algonquin for lunch.
An illustrated feature by Ralph Barton in the August 29, 1925 issue (titled “The Enquiring Reporter”) thumbs its nose at critics of the Round Table who accused its members of “logrolling” (exchanging favorable plugs of one another’s works). Barton’s feature spoofs the man-on-the-street interviews that were popular in the 1920s. The persons chosen “at random” are none other than members of the Algonquin Round Table who take turns denying that any logrolling takes place at the famed gathering:
In fact, there was quite a bit of logrolling taking place in this “Vicious Circle.” As Thomas Kunkel writes in Genius in Disguise, in addition to New Yorker contributors, the Algonquin Round Table variously included representatives of the New York Times, the New York Tribune, Vanity Fair, Harpers Bazaar and Life.
“The wits cross-pollinated feverishly. Shrugging off charges of logrolling, they quoted one another in their columns, reviewed one another’s shows, publicized one another’s books. To be fair many of the glowing notices were deserved—and in any case not all the notices were glowing.”
Kunkel also observes, “By far the most powerful transmitter of Round Table wit was (Franklin) Adams (known to most as F.P.A.), whose column in the Tribune (and later the World), “The Conning Tower,” was scoured by tens of thousands of New Yorkers for its dollops of quippery and clever verse. Young writers conspired to break into the column, and the appearance of even a four-line snippet was regarded as a triumph…the Round Table supplied F.P.A. with a freshet of material, and he wasn’t bashful about using it. A particularly good line from Parker or Kaufman or Benchley might turn up in “The Conning Tower” within hours of its utterance.”
In other happenings, “The Talk of the Town” noted that the last meal served at Delmonico’s–which was fated for the wrecking ball–was less a cause for mourning and more one of scorn for the bad taste of the site’s owners:
Among other items, O.H.P. Garrett penned a “Profile” about flamboyant mayoral candidate Jimmie Walker that seemed to anticipate the raucous career that would follow after his election.
Garrett observed that “his life is constructed of minutes and seconds. He can be clocked with a stop watch,” and that Walker’s main concerns seemed to be Sunday baseball, boxing and the repeal of movie censorship.
Lois Long seemed a bit bored with the week’s diversions in her column, “When Nights Are Bold,” but did welcome the reappearance of Texas Guinan after yet another club was threatened with padlocks by the Prohibition Authority:
On the advertising front, the back inside cover and back cover were graced with paid advertising. As with most ads in The New Yorker, the target audience had some money to spend on travel:
And we end with these weekend scenes from the magazine’s center spread, drawn by Helen Hokinson:
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. Although Ross’s name looms large in most accounts of the early New Yorker, Grant played a major role in its conception and launch.
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).
The first two cartoons ever featured in the New Yorker were by Al Frueh:
“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).
Most of 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’sRhapsody 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’sMcTeugue 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 (illustration by Reginald Marsh)…
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’sExiles 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).