Distant Rumblings

As I’ve previously noted, reading back issues of periodicals often gives one a feeling of omniscience; as I thumb through week after week of late 1920s New Yorkers, I realize that for all their cleverness and worldly wisdom, even that magazine’s writers and editors could not see with any clarity into the future. But neither can any of us…one wonders what readers 89 years hence will surmise from today’s magazines, that is, if our civilization lasts that long.

January 28, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Howard Brubaker (in his column “Of All Things”) might have spotted something brewing on the horizon, even if it wouldn’t become perfectly clear until Dec. 7, 1941. Here is a clip from his Jan. 28, 1928 column in the New Yorker:

Two other major events in U.S. history, the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that would follow, were less than two years away. But this was the Roaring Twenties, and some thought the fun would never end…except perhaps Equitable Trust, which placed this advertisement in the Jan. 28 issue:

Apparently the folks at Equitable Trust weren’t assured of their own financial freedom—after the Crash they would be acquired by Chase National Bank, making Chase the largest bank in the world at that time.

Despite the overheated economy of the 1920s, there still were plenty of poor and unemployed people in the city. One man, Urbain Ledoux (known as Mr. Zero in order to hide his identity), often arranged protests and demonstrations to bring attention to the poor and unemployed, and opened a number of bread lines and soup kitchens to feed the hungry, including the “Tub,” depicted in this two-page illustration by Constantin Alajalov along the bottom of the “Talk” section of the Jan. 28 issue (click image to enlarge).

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Not All Gloom and Doom

Hindsight also reveals the trajectory of the 20th century’s great accomplishments. Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight in 1927, for example, fueled the imaginations of those who would usher in the jet age and space travel. Just 31 years after Lindbergh’s flight, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) would begin operation of its first transatlantic passenger jet service. And only 42 years would separate Lindbergh’s flight from Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.

JUST 31 YEARS would separate Lindbergh’s flight from the first transatlantic jet service. At left, the DeHavilland Comet 4 (1958), and at right, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis (1927). (warthunder.com/howstuffworks.com)

Like the rest of America, the New Yorker was an enthusiastic follower of developments in aviation after Lindbergh (the “aerial ambassador” referred to below). The January 28 “Talk of the Town” led with this item about pilots soaring to ever greater heights.

Consider that a mere 41 years separated this…

YETI, SET, GO!…A pilot in high altitude flying gear next to a Wright Apache biplane,  January 1, 1928. In September 1926 the Apache set the world altitude record for seaplanes (38,500 ft) and in April 1930 it set the landplane altitude record of 43,166 ft. (NASA)

…from this…

LEAVE THE FUR COAT AT HOME…The second man on the moon, Buzz Aldrin, prepares to step onto the lunar surface, July 20, 1969. (Neil Armstrong/NASA)

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While Back on Earth…

Big events in America always seem to involve the appearance of showgirls, whether it is the introduction of a new car or some techno gadget. As this “Talk” item indicates, much was the same 89 years ago…

READY FOR THE NEXT SHINDIG…Florenz Ziegfeld posing with the Follies Girls at a rehearsal in 1931. (ruthetting.com)

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A Silent Giant

German film actor Emil Jannings was lauded for his performances on the screen in both Germany and America in films, and he was particularly adept at portraying of the pathos of middle-aged men. The New Yorker disliked most of Hollywood’s output (and usually praised the much-artier German films), so when Jannings landed on these shores he was lauded by the magazine, which dedicated a profile (written by Elsie McCormick) to him in the Jan. 28 issue, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration. Some excerpts:

LIFE IS HARD…Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings star in The Last Command. In the first Academy Awards, Jannings would win best actor for two films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. (silentfilm.org)

At the first Academy Awards in 1929, Jannings would win a Best Actor Oscar for two of his 1928 films, The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh. An interesting side note from writer Susan Orlean: In her 2011 book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. The famous dog actor Rin Tin Tin actually won the vote. The Academy, worried about not being taken seriously, gave the award to the human instead.

Janning’s thick German accent would bring his Hollywood career to an end with sound pictures. He would return to Germany, and during the Third Reich he would star in several films that promoted the Nazis. According to Wikipedia, the shooting of his last film, Wo ist Herr Belling? was aborted when Allied troops entered Germany in Spring 1945. Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood.

From the Advertising Department

This advertisement from the Jan. 28 issue caught my eye because Bergdorf Goodman is one of the few stores in Manhattan still operating at its original site:

Bergdorf Goodman today.

And here we have perhaps the iMac of its day, standing  apart from the competition with its colorful, bold new look…

And finally, this early cartoon from longtime New Yorker cartoonist Perry Barlow having some fun at the expense of New York’s working class…

Next Time: Good Vibrations…

 

 

Age of the Talkies

The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.

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October 15, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.

The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…

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IT SINGS! IT TALKS!!!…Al Jolson as Jack Robin and Eugenie Besserer as his mother, Sara Rabinowitz, in The Jazz Singer. One attendee at the premiere recalled that when Jolson and Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” (wired.com)

It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…

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BLACK TIE EVENT…A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft, left, is holding a soundtrack disc, which was essentially a phonograph record. The turntable, on a thick tripod base, is at lower center. (Wikipedia)

As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.

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THAT WAS THEN…Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer. Although performing in blackface is considered racist today, Jolson’s use of blackface was integral to the film in that it was tied to Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his struggle for identity. Of course that doesn’t make it any less offensive today. (theredlist)

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Absent-minded Ambassador

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.

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SON-IN-LAW…Aviator Charles Lindbergh would marry Dwight Morrow’s daughter, Anne, in 1929. in this photo from 1931 are, from left, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, and Dwight Morrow.

Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:

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Flight of Fancy

In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.

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The Fokker F.VII pictured above is likely the same plane or very similar to the one owned by Texas oilman William Denning. The interior depicted below is also similar to what is described in the New Yorker article. (aviation-history.com)

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RIP Isadora Duncan

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.

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Isadora Duncan (ati.com)

Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…

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…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:

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And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set:

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Next Time: Electric Wonders…

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Come Fly With Me

Since most of us complain about the sad state of air travel these days, it’s nice to get a little historical perspective on this mode of transportation.

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Sept. 4, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin.

Ninety years ago the editors of The New Yorker were enamored with passenger air service, even though it was only available to those who were wealthy and had the stomach to actually fly in one of these things:

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The May 8, 1925 christening of the Sikorsky “Yorktown.” The “huge” plane is referred to in the Sept. 4, 1926 “Talk of the Town.” (Library of Congress)

In the “Talk of the Town” section, The New Yorker editors marveled at the regular air taxi service available to Manhattanites:

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The “huge” Yorktown referred to above might look crude to a traveler in 2016, but this was advanced stuff considering the Wright Brothers had made their first flight less than 23 years earlier. Planes like the Yorktown looked less like aircraft we know today and more like a trolley car with wings attached. And that window in the front wasn’t for the pilot. He sat up top in the open air:

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Side view of the Sikorsky “Yorktown.” Note the pilot seated aft of the wings. (flickr)

But then again, the interiors of these planes were no picnic, either:

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Interior of a Farman Goliath, which would have been similar to the Sikorsky, if not a little nicer. (Historic Wings)
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Another photo of a 1920s passenger flight. As in the preceding photo, note the wicker chairs. And no leg room. These fellows appear to awaiting the showing of an early in-flight movie. At least movies were silent then, because with giant piston engines flanking the cabin you weren’t going hear anything anyway. (Paleofuture)

Other items from the Sept. 4, 1926 “Talk” section included a bit about the former president and then Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft, and his rather ordinary life in Murray Bay. An excerpt:

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Ex-President, Supreme Court Justice and avid golfer William Howard Taft follows through on the links in this undated photo (jmarkpowell.com)

At the movies, The New Yorker gave a lukewarm review of the much-ballyhooed film Beau Geste:

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AT LEAST SHE HAD A NICE COMPLEXION…Mary Brian (dubbed “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”) with Neil Hamilton in Beau Geste, 1926 (classiccinemaimages)

And although Gloria Swanson was one of the biggest stars in the Silent Era, The New Yorker was never a big fan of her films:

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Gloria Swanson in Fine Manners, 1926 (IMDB)

And finally, this advertisement from Houbigant, featuring a drawing of an elegant woman with an impossibly long neck. I wouldn’t want her sitting in front of me at the movies…

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Another ad (from the Sept. 11 issue) also depicted this giraffe-like neckline:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.12.30 AMNext Time…Battleship Potemkin…

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Fun in the Sun

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Cover of Jan. 2, 1926 issue by Rea Irvin.

As we begin a new year of The New Yorker, it strikes me how little things have changed in 90 years, at least when it comes to human nature–wars and rumors of wars, celebrity gossip, the latest fads in music and fashion, fights over politics and religion. It’s all still with us. And yet, a person from 2015 would be seem like an extraterrestrial in 1926.

January 1926 was still a year and a half away from Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight. Today we think so little of jumping on a plane that soars seven miles above the earth and whisks us anywhere in a matter of hours. In fact we mostly gripe about it. I like comedian Louis C.K.’s response to a man’s complaint about a runway delay: “What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”

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The Fokker F7. If you could even afford to fly in the mid-1920s, this is your ride. Buckle up! (Top, aviation history.com; bottom, dutchaviation.nl)

People in 1926 lived very differently (for better or worse), with far fewer distractions. No TV, only sporadic music on mono-tinny radios (or from mostly scratchy, hand-cranked records). Electric lights, but only if you lived in a city or town. The metropolis was noisy, but there was also silence. No cellphones or earphones, no CNN or ESPN blaring from every vertical surface. Your health? Forget it. Going to the dentist, regardless of your station in life, was a chamber of horrors. Ditto the doctor. Ever look at an antique doctor’s bag? Just some brown bottles, weird clamps and a saw. Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered until 1928, and for some reason lots of people died back then of peritonitis. It would claim both Rudolph Valentino and Harry Houdini in 1926. Finally, if you lived in 1926 you probably thought The War to End All Wars was just that. Only a few of the very sage saw the annihilation yet to come.

Anyway…

I titled this edition “Fun in the Sun” because the Jan. 2 issue opens with back-to-back ads enticing freezing New Yorkers to go south for the winter:

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These were boom years for places like Miami Beach, formerly a quiet backwater but fast becoming a popular vacation getaway for New Yorkers and other Northeasterners. During the 1920s many wealthy industrialists from the north and Midwest also built their winter homes there.

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Japanese tea garden at the Flamingo Hotel in 1923 – Miami Beach (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
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Bathers on Miami Beach in 1925 (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

In other items, the “Reporter at Large” Morris Markey commented on the death of Frank Munsey, American newspaper and magazine publisher. Munsey had a reputation for extreme frugality and was widely disliked by employees who blamed him for their “shoddy recompense.” Munsey is credited with the idea of using new high-speed printing presses to print cheap, ragged pulp magazines, especially for working-class readers. Magazines such as Munsey and Argosy were filled with various genres of action and adventure fiction.

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Munsey’s Magazine January 1925 (philsp.com)

Morris Markey wrote that Munsey would fire people on a whim for reasons that included being left-handed, too old, too young, or too fat. During his ownership of the New York Sun, Munsey gave “a peremptory order that all fat men, being inefficient and probably lazy, be expelled from the Sun staff.” Markey was no fan of Munsey as is clear in this excerpt:

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Theodore Shane continued to be disappointed with films coming out of Hollywood. He described Norma Shearer’s latest picture His Secretary as “poor.”

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A stenographer, and a vamp! Norma Shearer in His Secretary, 1925 (silent beauties)

The film was about a humble stenographer who suddenly transforms into a ravishing sex symbol, a “Cinderella theme” that Shane believed had been thoroughly worn out by the actress. He was also underwhelmed by the return to the screen of William S. Hart, once a big star of the early silents.

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The old cowboy isn’t done yet, durn it! (silenthollywood.com)

I have written several entries about the changing face of Fifth Avenue (the old mansions being destroyed, that is). Here is Robert Benchley’s take on the subject:

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To close, an illustrated feature by Helen Hokinson, once again showing us how a college student of the 1920s looks (to my eyes anyway) as ancient and remote as a mastodon:

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Next time: Ben Hur Bric-à-brac

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