A Familiar Ring

Ring Lardner is one of those 20th century American writers everyone has heard of but few have actually read. This is perhaps because he is often pigeonholed as a sportswriter rather than being remembered as a gifted satirist whose crisp writing style—often peppered with slang—influenced a generation of writers including Ernest Hemingway, who covered sports for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym “Ring Lardner.”

July 7, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lardner would contribute nearly two dozen pieces to the New Yorker beginning with this ditty in the April 18, 1925 issue—

—and ending with “Odd’s Bodkins,” published posthumously in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue (Lardner died at age 48 of a heart ailment on Sept. 25, 1933). In his satirical “Profiles” piece for the July 7, 1928 issue, Lardner had some fun with editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman, who like Lardner existed within the orbit of the famed Algonquin Round Table but was not a regular member (however Beatrice’s husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, was a charter member).

The entire piece, including an illustration by Peter Arno, is below (click image to enlarge the text):

Ring Lardner in undated photo, possibly mid 1920s (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
KAUFMAN CHUMS…Comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice Kaufman and George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s; writer/critic Alexander Woollcott (left), artist Neysa McMein, actor Alfred Lunt, Beatrice Kaufman and comedian Harpo Marx hanging out in the 1920s. (spartacus-educational.com)

 *  *  *

One New Yorker writer who does stand the test of time is E.B. White, known to earlier generations for his many humorous contributions to the New Yorker and to later generations for his co-authorship of the English language reference The Elements of Style, and for his beloved children’s books including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte’s Web was often voted as the top children’s novel in a survey of School Library Journal readers, and most recently in 2012—the 60th anniversary of its publication). In the July 7, 1928 issue the nature-loving White offered these tongue-in-cheek plant care instructions, arranged atop a cartoon by Alan Dunn:

Another cartoon in the July 7 issue by Garrett Price offered another perspective on an advertising come-on:

No doubt Price was referencing ads such as this one below by the American Tobacco Company in which actress and dancer Gilda Gray—who in the 1920s popularized a dance called the “shimmy”—announced her preference for pipe smokers:

And we close with this cartoon by Al Frueh, who demonstrated how fashion had freed the woman of the Roaring Twenties:

Interested in the history of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists? Then I recommend you check out cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Inkspill website for news on cartoonists and events. Another great site is Stephen Nadler’s Attempted Bloggery, which explores original art, auctions, obscurities and other angles of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists.

A couple of my favorite Maslin cartoons (among many):

Next Time: 100 Percent Talker…

Down to Coney

The New Yorker kicked off the summer season with a trip down to Coney Island. “The Talk of the Town” took in the various sights and amusements at the famed Steeplechase and Luna parks.

June 23, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

Attractions at Steeplechase Park included everything from racing wooden horses to a “human billiard table.” Less jolly diversions included air jets that blew up  women’s skirts and clowns who administered electric shocks to unsuspecting visitors (one more reason to fear them). And there was at least one racist game of skill…

FEAR THE CLOWN…A photo from the 1940s shows a pair of clowns “help” a woman through the entrance to Steeplechase Park’s Insanitarium and Blowhole Theatre. Located in the Pavilion of Fun, visitors were led through Comedy Lane, which featured jets of compressed air intended to lift skirts. Clowns spanked patrons and even zapped them with a cattle prod. (worth point.com)
Clockwise, from upper left: A Steeplechase rider passes in front of the massive Pavilion of Fun; interior of the Pavilion of Fun; young women preparing to be spun around on the Human Billiard Table; scene from the 1928 Harold Lloyd movie Speedy filmed in the Pavilion of Fun (westland.net, CardCow, houseoftoomuchtrouble.tumblr.com, safetylast.tumblr.com) click to enlarge
OUT FOR A SPIN…Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy take a spin on the Pavilion of Fun’s Human Roulette Wheel in the 1928 film Speedy. (spellboundbymovies.com)
TRUMPED…Coney Island’s landmark Pavilion of Fun at Steeplechase Park was demolished in 1966 by developer Fred Trump, father of Donald Trump. The young Donald (19 at the time) was on hand for his father’s “Demolition Party,” which featured scantily clad models who paraded in front of the park and encouraged guests to throw bricks at the stained glass windows of the historic pavilion. Later that night Trump bulldozed the amusement park to the ground, thereby limiting any pending proceedings to declare the property a historic landmark. (Daily Telegraph/Untapped Cities)

Over at Luna Park there were more air holes to blow up women’s skirts and assorted freak shows. More wholesome entertainments included the famed Cyclone rollercoaster, which celebrated its 90th year of operation in 2017.

DREAMLAND…Luna Park at night in the 1920s. At right, the famed Cyclone Roller Coaster, still going strong at 90. (carouselhistory.com, NY Daily News)

 *  *  *

The June 23 “Talk of the Town” also anticipated the construction of a new theatre to be developed by famed Austrian director/producer Max Reinhardt and designed by Austrian-American architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban:

Unfortunately the market crash of 1929 put an end to the project, which would have looked like this had it been constructed:

Joseph Urban’s unbuilt Reinhardt Theatre. The innovative design incorporated the building’s fire escapes into its glimmering facade. (Columbia University)

Urban designed innovative sets for clients ranging from the Metropolitan Opera to the Ziegfeld Follies (he also designed a theatre for Ziegfeld in 1927, see below). Although he is noted as one of the originators of American Art Deco, most of his architectural work in the United States has been demolished.

RARE REMNANT…Little remains of the work of Joseph Urban, one of the originators of American Art Deco. Fortunately the Tishman Auditorium at the New School still stands. (nycarchitecture.com)
ONLY A MEMORY…Most of Jospeh Urban’s American work has been demolished, including his Ziegfield Theatre from 1927. (nyc-architecture.com)
MAR-A-LAGO…Joseph Urban designed the interiors of one of America’s most famous mansions—Mar-a-Lago. Built from 1924 to 1927 by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, it is now owned by Donald Trump and operated as a members-only club. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

The New Yorker continued to struggle with the emergence of “talking pictures.” The critic “O.C.” found that the sound dialogue in The Lion and the Mouse did little to improve the picture:

The critic seemed to believe that sound pictures would take some time to catch on. Little did he know that Warner Brothers would announce later that summer (August 1928) that all of its films for the 1928-29 fiscal year would have sound. United Artists would make the same announcement in November 1928. In February 1929 Twentieth-Century Fox would make its final silent movie, and Columbia would release its last silent movie on April 1, 1929.

OH SHUT UP…Theatre card for The Lion and the Mouse. (Wikipedia)

The New Yorker still found happiness at the movies through the likes of actress Colleen Moore, who made a sweet little film called Happiness Ahead. 

Colleen Moore strikes a contemplative pose in Happiness Ahead. (IMDB)

Colleen Moore was one of the most famous stars of the silent era who popularized the bobbed haircut and flapper style. Personally, I’ve always considered Moore to be a more wholesome version of the flapper, in contrast to the more worldly Louise Brooks, another flapper icon of the Twenties.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME…Actresses Colleen Moore (left) and Louise Brooks defined flapper style in the 1920s. (dorineenvrac.wordpress.com / corvusnoir.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Continuing our series on celebrity endorsements of Old Gold cigarettes, none other than the Little Tramp stepped up to take the blindfold test (along with a pile of cash, no doubt):

And if Old Gold is not to your taste, then why not enjoy the “toasted” pleasures of Lucky Strike? Actress Betty Compson found them indispensable when preparing for a big scene:

 *  *  *

And now for something that caught my eye in the June 23 issue…a bit of filler art that broke up some copy on page 34:

This particular illustration was also featured in one of the New Yorker’s earliest issues—March 21, 1925—in a two-part comic panel (below). I am puzzled why the New Yorker, flush with artistic talent by 1928, reused this illustration. Perhaps the layout editors figured since the readership was so small in March 1925, no one would notice.

And we leave with yet another look at some Jazz Age shenanigans, courtesy cartoonist Peter Arno:

Next Time: Summer Breeze…

Dog’s Best Friend

The “Profile” for the May 12, 1928 issue was unusual in that its subject was not a titan of industry, or a prominent politician, or noted artist, musician or literary figure, but rather a dog—an extraordinary animal named Egon who would be lost to history were it not for Alexander Woollcott writing about this particular German Shepherd and his exploits on the French Riviera.

May 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

I should be clear that the dog featured at the top of this entry is not Egon, but a famous contemporary named Rin Tin Tin. It is said Egon could have enjoyed similar fame on the silver screen (Hollywood was looking for an animal to replace the aging canine superstar), but Egon’s owner, Benjamin Finney, had no interest in the limelight. So I couldn’t find any images of Egon save for this drawing that accompanied Woollcott’s essay:

Writing for the Huffington Post, Anne Margaret Daniel calls Egon Finney the “Jazz Age celebrity no one has noticed since his lifetime, but who is surely as interesting as many of his human contemporaries — and far more interesting than many of them.”

Woollcott would agree with that statement, given the opening paragraphs of his piece on Egon:

When Egon and Finney lived in Antibes in 1927 and 1928, Egon would give diving exhibitions off the rocks below the Hotel du Cap. According to Daniel, the dog also “availed himself of his owner’s surfboard, and water skis — possibly the first pair ever on the Riviera.” Egon was aided in his efforts by none other than the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930.

DOG LOVERS…Alexander Woolcott, left, and Egon owner Benjamin Finney (boweryboyshistory.com/Sewanee University of the South)
HE TAUGHT A DOG TO WATER SKI, TOO…F. Scott Fitzgerald, wife Zelda and son Scottie in Antibes in 1926. Fitzgerald lived on the Riviera from 1925 to 1930, writing much of The Great Gatsby there. His last-completed novel, Tender Is The Night, was set on the Riviera. (Getty)

According to Daniel, Finney recalled that Egon’s physical design “made it difficult for him to get started (on the surfboard), but his friend Scott Fitzgerald was expert at giving him a hand… Firmly balanced, tail streaming in the wind, he was a noble sight — and he knew it.”

Because the dog outshone his owner, Woollcott headlined his profile, “The Owner of Ben Finney.” Egon died in 1934, and those very words are carved on his headstone, located in America’s first pet cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.

Someone He Could Finally Relate To…

Charles Lindbergh was famously shy and crowd averse, so when the famed aviator met with the serious-minded boxing champ Gene Tunney, he found something of a kindred spirit. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was there for all of the action:

NOWHERE TO HIDE…This item in the El Paso Evening Post (Feb. 29, 1928) was precisely the sort of thing both Gene Tunney and Charles Lindbergh detested. (Evening Post)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers…

Beginning in 1924 the Southern Pacific’s Golden State Limited trains added modern and luxurious 3-compartment, 2-drawing room observation cars to their Pullman fleet. This advertisement in the May 12, 1928 New Yorker enticed affluent readers to take the 2,762 mile, 70-hour journey from Chicago to Los Angeles:

NOT THE WORST FOR WEAR…The Russian actress, singer and dancer Olga Baclanova exits the Golden State Limited in Los Angeles in July 1929 after a long journey from New York. Billed as “The Russian Tigress” who often portrayed an exotic blonde temptress, she is best known for her roles as Duchess Josiana in the silent The Man Who Laughs and as a circus trapeze artist in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult horror movie Freaks. (olgabaclanova.com)

As the fashion advertisements turned to summer, the May 12 issue featured no less than three separate ads for straw boaters…

Today’s ubiquitous polo shirt was an entirely new look for the summer of 1928. The shirt was designed by France’s seven-time Grand Slam tennis champion René Lacoste, who understandably found traditional “tennis whites” (starched, long-sleeved white button-up shirts with neckties) both cumbersome and uncomfortable. Lacoste first wore the polo at the 1926 U.S. Open, and in 1927 he placed the famous crocodile emblem on the left breast of his shirts. It didn’t take long for many imitators to hit the market. This ad from Wallach Brothers offered one version for $6, although I can’t imagine wool was the best material for this shirt (Lacoste used cotton in his).

No doubt B. Altman had June brides in mind for this advertisement featuring a deco bride of impossible proportions:

And our cartoon is once again from Peter Arno, who explored the not so subtle racism of the upper classes:

Next Time: Man About Town…

Will Wonders Never Cease?

The early New Yorker was known for its fashionably blasé tone, but its writers were often giddy when it came to reporting on technological advances.

April 14, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

Such was the case with transatlantic telephone service, which before 1927 was the stuff of fantasy. By 1928, the New Yorker marveled at this service by suggesting in “Talk of the Town” that the invention had become matter-of-fact:

The New Yorker correctly prophesied that the telephone’s primary use would be for mundane communications—not much different from how we use smartphones today for selfies, texting and chitchat.

WHAT HO! New York Mayor Jimmy Walker visits with London’s Lord Mayor in a 1927 transatlantic telephone call. The calls were made possible through radio transmission from station to station across the ocean. (NY TIMES)

 *  *  *

Even the first “unofficial” transatlantic conversation, between two unknown American and British engineers, was a fairly routine conversation about the weather and distances between various cities. At one point, however, the American makes this prophetic remark: “Distance doesn’t mean anything anymore. We are on the verge of a very high- speed world….people will use up their lives in a much shorter time, they won’t have to live so long.”

In the same issue, writer Morris Markey gushed about his tour of a radio broadcast facility…

ON  THE AIR WITH MR NEW YORK…A photo of WNYC’s transmitter room on the 25th floor of New York City’s Municipal Building. At left is the founder of the station, Grover A. Whalen, on the phone prior to the station’s opening night ceremonies on July 8, 1924. Whalen described himself as “Mr. New York,” often serving as the city’s official and unofficial greeter of politicians, royalty and celebrities. He served as police commissioner in the 1920s, and later as president of the 1939 World’s Fair. (WNYC)
IN REAL TIME…A live radio play being broadcast at NBC studios in New York. (Wikiwand)

Awed by this technical marvel, Markey described how the station could broadcast its show across the country…

More Evidence Lindy Was Made of Wood

The New Yorker’s reporting on Charles Lindbergh continued with this item in “Talk of the Town” that described a young woman’s dream to fly with the famous pilot. And fly was all she did…

SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP…Charles Lindbergh at home in his cockpit, circa late 1920s. (fbi.gov)

*  *  *

From the World of Advertising…

Lux Soap continued its string of advertisements in the New Yorker featuring Broadway stars of the day. Among them was actress Mary Ellis…

Mary Ellis was an American star of stage, radio, television, film and opera, best known for her roles in musical theatre. She appeared at the Metropolitan Opera beginning in 1918, later appearing opposite famed tenor Enrico Caruso. On Broadway she was known for creating the title role in Rose-Marie.

Born in 1897, she died in 2003 at the age of 105. She had the distinction of being the last surviving star to perform in a Puccini opera (while Puccini was alive) and the last star to perform opposite Caruso.

SEASONED PERFORMER…1934 E.R. Richie photograph of actress Mary Ellis. (eBay)

Lux soap wasn’t the only company exploiting celebrities for sales. Cigarette companies also sought endorsements from prominent women to exploit the new and rapidly growing market of female smokers. This ad below from the April 14 issue featured Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, a Swiss-born American socialite best known as the mother of fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and grandmother of CNN journalist Anderson Cooper:

SHE ALSO SHILLED FOR COLD CREAM…Edward Steichen photograph of Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt for a Pond’s Cold Cream testimonial campaign, 1925. (library.duke.edu)

In a famous custody battle in 1934, Vanderbilt lost custody of her daughter to her sister-in-law Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and the court also removed Vanderbilt as administrator of her daughter’s trust fund, her only means of support. From the 1940s until her death at age 60 in 1965 she lived with her identical twin sister, Thelma, also known as the Viscountess Furness.

In another portrait of the upper classes, Barbara Shermund takes a peek into the drawing room of a less than cerebral hostess…

Next Time: The Last Dance…

 

Conventional Follies of ’28

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.

March 31, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

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.

WET VS. WET BLANKET…The staid, “dry” Republican candidate Herbert Hoover (left) easily defeated the charismatic “wet” Democratic candidate Al Smith (right) in the 1928 U.S. Presidential Election.

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:

BIG CHIEF… Coolidge donned a headdress while being named an honorary Sioux chief (“Leading Eagle”) in Deadwood, South Dakota in the summer of 1927. (AP)

 *  *  *

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…

THEIR EASTER BEST…A couple strolling in New York’s 1922 Easter Parade. (Bettmann/Corbis)
WHAT A DIFFERENCE 90 YEARS MAKES…The Easter Parade in 2012. (nycxplorer.com)

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…

Next Time: We Americans…

To Bob, or Not to Bob

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.

March 10, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

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.

EARLY TRENDSETTERS…From left, Lady Diana Cooper in the mid 1920s; dancer Irene Castle with her pet monkey, Rastus, in 1915; and French actress Polaire in 1910. (Cooper & Polaire photos from Library of Congress; Castle photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society)
AMERICAN BOBS…Perhaps the most famous bob belonged to 1920s silent film star Louise Brooks (at right, wearing the “King Tut” bob, circa 1925), who was considered the very definition of a Roaring Twenties flapper. At left, another version of the bob as worn by Anita Loos, circa 1930. Loos was a screenwriter and author who achieved great fame in the 1920s with her blockbuster comic novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes. (fashion1930s.tumblr.com / Smithsonian)

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:

LIFESTYLE CHANGES…Lois Long helped define the flapper lifestyle of the Jazz Age in her writing for the New Yorker. Long’s own bob evolved during the decade, from the straight boyish cut at right, circa 1925, to a “shingle style” bob at left in 1929, where she is pictured with her husband, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, and their newborn daughter, Patricia. (Patricia Arno / Wikipedia)

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…

 *  *  *

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.

TYPECAST…Billy Haines (left), Eleanor Boardman and Ben Lyon in Wine of Youth, 1924. (whenwewerecool.tumblr.com)
FAN FICTION…Movie fan magazines until mid-century were tools of the major studios with portrayals of the “real lives” of stars that were nearly as fictional as their film roles. Billy Haines (upper left) was one of the Hollywood “bachelors” featured in this article from an unidentified fan magazine. (Unknown/Pinterest)

In our featured cartoon from March 10, 1928, Helen Hokinson spies on her famous spinsters passing the time with a Ouija board:

Next Time: Broadway’s Soap Stars…

 

 

Good Vibrations

A decidedly new sound reverberated in the ears of New Yorkers who attended a Feb. 1928 performance of the New York Philharmonic that featured guest artist Leon Theremin, a Russian inventor who played music by moving his hands through the air, or more accurately, a magnetic field.

February 4, 1928 cover by Gardner Rea.

Theremin’s eponymous instrument had neither keys nor strings, but rather two metal antennas attached to an electronic oscillator. Music was produced by moving one’s hands between the antennas, which sensed the relative position of the players hands—one antenna controlled for pitch while the other adjusted the instrument’s volume. The sound produced is best described as “otherworldly.” James Thurber, writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” (in a piece titled “Music Makers”), found Theremin’s performance intriguing, but of even greater interest was the great Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff—who was in attendance—and his reaction to the strange instrument:

HMMMM…At left, Sergei Rachmaninoff in 1921, as photographed by Kubey Rembrandt. At right, Leon Theremin plays his eponymous instrument at a demonstration concert in Paris on December 8, 1927. (Wikimedia)

The New Yorker’s voyeuristic account of Rachmaninoff continued, with the great man now becoming more engaged in the performance…

The Theremin would grow in popularity, however more as a novelty than a serious instrument:

ON THE AIR…Alexandra Stepanoff playing the Theremin on NBC Radio in 1930. A Russian immigrant to the U.S., the former concert singer was Theremin’s first student in the United States. (Wikimedia)
VIRTUOSO…The Russian-born Clara (Reisenberg) Rockmore holds a unique place in music history as the virtuoso performer of the Theremin. Leon Theremin built a custom version of his instrument for Clara, which added greater range and sensitivity. Clara would sometimes perform concerts with her sister, accomplished pianist Nadia Reisenberg. Photo circa 1930. (YouTube)

Theremin would be granted a U.S. patent for the instrument in 1928, which was marketed and distributed in the U.S. by RCA during the 1930’s in either DIY kit form or as a finished instrument:

(120years.net)

Interest in the instrument as a novelty continued into the 40’s and 50’s in the DIY market…

(120years.net)

Robert Moog, pioneer of modern electronic music and inventor of the Moog synthesizer, made and sold a transistorized version of the Theremin in the 1950s.

The Theremin would become best known to mass culture through its use in producing “eerie” sound effects in 1940s and 50s films, including Bernard Herrmann’s use of the instrument for the soundtrack to the 1951 sci-fi thriller, The Day The Earth Stood Still. And nearly everyone on the planet has heard the Theremin-inspired sound of the Beach Boy’s song Good Vibrations, created by an electro-Theremin that was developed in the late 1950s to mimic the sound of the original Theremin.

As for Leon Theremin himself, he would also gain notoriety as the inventor of The Thing, a listening device most famously used by the Soviets to bug the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The device was hidden behind a wood carving of the U.S. Great Seal, which in 1945 was presented by Soviet schoolchildren to the U.S. ambassador, who subsequently hung it in his office.

GOTCHA…American Ambassador to the UN Henry Cabot Lodge displays The Thing before the UN Security Council in 1960. At right, the device which was hidden behind the seal. The Americans discovered the bug in 1952, but didn’t reveal its existence until 1960 in the wake of the U-2 spy plane incident. The Soviet Union had convened the meeting of the United Nations Security Council to accuse the Americans of spying with the U2; in response Cabot displayed The Thing as proof spying between the two countries was a mutual endeavor. (crytomuseum.com/Wikimedia)

The reasons why Theremin developed The Thing for the KGB are a mystery. When he suddenly disappeared from New York in 1938 it was rumored that he had been kidnapped and possibly executed by the KGB. What we do know is that Soviet spooks put him to work in a secret laboratory in the Gulag camp system, where he developed The Thing.

In 1991, filmmaker Steven Martin brought Leon Theremin back to New York to film a documentary about his life. Theremin gave one last performance in 1993, and died that year at age 97.

Wild Kingdom

The New Yorker’s review of the hit film Simba showed a very different approach to the natural world 89 years ago, when the wilds of Africa were exploited purely for adventure and thrills rather than for any real understanding of natural systems and the animals and humans that inhabited them. Martin and Osa Johnson were celebrated for their filmed exploits in the wilds, including Simba; they touted their movie—shot in Kenya—as being made under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History, although much of the film was staged or edited in ways to maximize the thrills.

The New Yorker found the film to be “darn good fun”…

Despite its flaws, the film does offer us a glimpse of Africa when wildlife hadn’t been hunted to near extinction, although the Johnsons didn’t hesitate to gun down animals left and right in the course of their movie-making.

According to a 2011 review from Wild Film History, “in stark contrast to the conservation-themed wildlife films of today, the Johnsons approached their subjects armed with both camera and rifle, with the production including provoked behaviour, staged confrontations and animals shot to death on film. Relying heavily on cutting in kills from professional marksmen, numerous hunting scenes culminate in a heart-stopping sequence where, with the use of clever editing, the adventurous Mrs Johnson appears to bring down a charging rhinoceros with one well-aimed shot.

NO DAVID ATTENBOROUGH…The Johnsons pose with local tribesman who appeared in Simba. (Corbis)
FUN WITH NATURE…Osa Johnson saddles up a hapless zebra. (Daily Mail)
BALI HAI…Osa shares a smoke with a local during one of the Johnsons’ filming excursions in the South Pacific. (Getty Images)

From the Advertising Department

There were three automobile ads in the Feb. 4 issue, all from long-gone companies—Pierce-Arrow, Hudson-Essex, and Nash, which featured this endorsement by the brother-sister dancing duo Fred and Adele Astaire:

This ad for Dynamique showcased the art deco stylings of its furniture line…

And finally, a Peter Arno cartoon of an upper class faux pas

Next Time: Literary Rotarians…