Race to the Sky

Almost 90 years after the lights went out on the Roaring Twenties, our collective imagination of New York City still harks back to that time…the sights and sounds of nightclubs and speakeasies and Broadway lights set to the tune of the Jazz Age.

Oct. 12, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

And no wonder, since that decade made the city what it is today. Changing social mores, along with labor-saving electrical appliances and the ubiquitous automobile, altered the tempo of life. And this quickened pace was also reflected in the built environment, old landmarks reduced to rubble while gleaming skyscrapers rose up in their place seemingly overnight. A Victorian edifice like the Waldorf-Astoria — little more than 30 years old — seemed positively ancient to Jazz Age New Yorkers, who unceremoniously knocked it down to make way for what would become the city’s most iconic landmark.

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) sensed that something big was on the horizon with his regular “Sky Line” updates on the city’s “tallest-building-in-the-world” contest. In the Oct. 12, 1929 issue he looked on admiringly as the Chrysler Building’s distinctive dome began to take shape:

IT’LL BE A SURPRISE…The Chrysler Building still lacked its gleaming art deco dome in this photo taken in the fall of 1929. At left is the Chanin Building, completed earlier that year. (adamunderhill.wordpress.com)

Chappell observed that the Chrysler Building’s claim as the world’s tallest would be short-lived, as plans for the Waldorf-Astoria site called for a much taller structure…

DOOMED…The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel (left), completed in 1897, was scarcely more than 30 years old when it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The former governor of New York, Al Smith (inset) led the corporation that knocked down the old hotel and erected the world’s tallest building on the site. Demolition of the hotel began on October 1, 1929 (images at right). In his 2014 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, John Tauranac observes the demolition was an arduous process, as the hotel had been constructed using more rigid material than what was found in earlier buildings. Those materials — granite, wood, and metals such as lead, brass, and zinc — were not in high demand. Most of the wood was deposited into a woodpile on nearby 30th Street or burned in a swamp. Other materials, including the granite and bronze, were dumped into the Atlantic near Sandy Hook, NJ. (New York Historical Society/New York Public Library Digital Gallery)
RISING FROM THE RUBBLE…The Empire State Building under construction in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 1,250 foot (1,454 with antenna) building would claim the title as the world’s tallest. It was something of a definitive victory, as the building held that record for nearly 40 years. (travelandleisure.com)

Although Al Smith’s building seemed assured to win the “world’s tallest” title, another giant was taking shape on the drawing boards…

LAND OF THE GIANTS…City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (left), now known as 20 Exchange Place, was originally designed in 1929 to be the world’s tallest building at 846 feet, but the realities of the Depression brought it down to a more modest 741 feet, making it the fourth-tallest building in New York when it was completed in 1931. At right, the 22-year-old Century Theatre on Central Park West was demolished to make way for Irwin Chanin’s Century Apartments, also completed in 1931. (Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com)

…while we are on the subject of skyscrapers, the New Yorker reprinted this illustration by Andre De Schaub to fill in a space at the bottom of page 54 in the Oct. 12 issue…

…the drawing originally appeared in the magazine three years earlier, as a cartoon in the October 16, 1926 issue. It included a caption: “High position on Wall Street” (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill for helping me track this one down)…

As the demolition crews picked apart the old Waldorf, E.B. White wondered why more fanfare wasn’t attached to such occasions, whether they be demolitions or ribbon-cuttings…

NEEDS MORE HOOPLA…Al Smith with his wife Catherine Dunn Smith, and two of his grandchildren at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building, May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the building by pressing a button in the White House that turned on the building’s lights (it was merely symbolic; they were actually turned on by some unknown maintenance worker in New York). (Museum of the City of New York)

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A Novel Idea

My last post featured a brief excerpt of an Oct. 5 theater review by Robert Benchley, who sized up Elmer Rice’s new play, See Naples and Die. Rice pops up again in the Oct. 12 issue, this time as the author of A Voyage to Purilia, the first novel serialized in the New Yorker. The novel was a satire on the silent film industry, set in the fictional land of Purilia. Here is the first page of the piece, with illustrations provided by Peter Arno:

SENDING UP THE SILENTS…Elmer Rice in 1920; his satirical novel about the silent film industry, A Voyage to Purilla, was serialized in the New Yorker in 1929 and published the following year. It was re-published in the 1950s as a science fiction novel. (Wikipedia/Amazon)

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Siren Song

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes trained his discerning eye on the famed torch singer and speakeasy denizen Helen Morgan, attempting to understand the hard-living singer’s allure…

Helen Morgan, circa 1930. (masterworksbroadway.com)

RIGHT AT HOME…Helen Morgan made the draped-over-the-piano look of a torch singer her signature style. (Pinterest.UK)
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY…Helen Morgan (left) as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway cast of Show Boat, 1927. It was her best-known role. At right, Morgan in Applause, 1929. (Pinterest/IMDB)

Seldes struggled to understand Morgan’s appeal, which seemed to draw from an assemblage of personas…

PLUMBING EMOTIONAL DEPTHS…Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, 1935. (IMDB)

Seldes concluded that Morgan belonged with other artistic greats in her ability to create a sense of expectancy…

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The Invention of Distracted Driving

Writing in his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott noted the advent of the car radio, a “new complication” to an “already over-elaborate existence.” Note that Trott viewed the car radio as something to be listened to while parked — car radios were fairly controversial back then, akin to driving while texting today.

EASY TO INSTALL…New Yorker automotive critic Nicholas Trott observed that cars were now being wired to receive radio sets (you still had to buy one and install it yourself). The system above featured battery-powered vacuum tubes, a dash-mounted dial and mono speaker. (hemmings.com)

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From Our Advertisers

To the refined owner of a Pierce-Arrow, a car radio would have been a crass novelty. After all, your driver was there to drive, and listen to your orders…

…unlike the Pierce-Arrow, which took pride in its heritage, the folks at Chrysler were known for their forward-thinking in design and technical innovation…

…on to some of the back page ads, we find appeals to flee the oncoming winter and escape to the golden sands of Waikiki…note the second ad, and its rather democratic invitation…

…and then we have the ads that hoped to catch the eye of the grasping Francophile, with delicacies from Louis Sherry or mock bubbly from the makers of applesauce…the second ad is particularly heartbreaking, the copy writer trying his or her best to conjure the glamour of Champagne from a bottle of apple juice. Zut!…

…fake Champagne isn’t for you? Well Leonard Dove offers us a salesman doing his best to sell a bottle of mock gin…

…returning to the ads, here’s one more from the back pages that references Harold Ross’s original prospectus for his magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The ad is for Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden, where the art of burlesque got its start. Despite the cheapness of the ad and the implied salaciousness, uptown New Yorkers loved “slumming” at Minsky’s burlesque, including artists and writers (Hart Crane even wrote a poem called “National Winter Garden”). No doubt a few New Yorker staffers found their way inside as well…

Clockwise from top left, Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden; a 1920’s burlesque performer; a ticket for two to the show. (New York Post/Amazon/Pinterest)

…on to the illustrators and cartoonists, a nice street scene by Reginald Marsh

John Held Jr. contributed one of his famed “woodcuts” to the Oct. 12 issue. Held was an old childhood friend of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. It was Ross who encouraged Held to deviate from his popular flapper caricatures — he recalled how his friend had produced clever woodcuts in high school, and wanted something similar for his magazine…

A John Held Jr. illustration for Life magazine, 1927. (Library of Congress)

Peter Arno went behind the scenes at a posh nightclub (a setting Arno was very familiar with)…

Helen Hokinson found confusion at the elections…

Perry Barlow offered up this sweet slice of family life…

…and Denys Wortman illustrated the power of the pen…

Next Time: City of Glass…

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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New Yorker Monotypes

Another humorist who regularly contributed to the New Yorker was Baird Leonard, who beginning with the second issue of the magazine (Feb. 28, 1925) wrote a series titled “Metropolitan Monotypes.” Over five years and 36 installments Leonard wrote free-verse characterizations of various New York “types,” from debutantes to aesthetes to “The Anglomaniac” as described below in this installment from March 31, 1928:

As I’ve noted before, Anglophilia oozed from the New Yorker ads, particularly those directed at the male reader (France was a common lure in ads for women). Every issue from the 1920s is rife with examples, but sticking to the March 31 issue we find this ad employing the British slang for cigarettes to market a silly, dog-shaped cigarette case to fashionable women:

In the same issue this ad from Macy’s appealed to participants of a famous cultural event for the posh set—the annual Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue. A tradition dating back to the 1870s, in its first decades the “parade” was a display of wealth and beauty, as the well-to-do strolled from church to church to check out various floral displays.

The parade has changed considerably over the years, with high fashion given over to camp as the event has become far more democratic…

Young Couple strolling in the Easter Parade, 1928. (Retronaut)
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…

Odious Odes

After his famous transatlantic flight, not only did Charles Lindbergh have to endure endless banquets and the sweaty crush of adoring crowds, but he also inspired a lot of kitsch, including some spectacularly bad poetry that Dorothy Parker could’t help but eviscerate in the Jan. 7, 1928 issue.

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January 7, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

Before we tackle the poetry, here is a sampling of various Lindbergh memorabilia:

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THEY’RE SELLING YOU…Assortment of Lindbergh souvenirs on display at the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum. (Eric Long/Smithsonian)
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A SHARP TONGUE…Dorothy Parker in 1928.

Parker led off her “Reading & Writing” column with this observation about the collapse of grammar and civilization in general…

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…and offered two examples—chocolate-covered olives and a new book of poems dedicated to Charles Lindbergh’s heroic solo crossing of the Atlantic…

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Parker’s comment about guiding a razor across her throat is a bit unnerving, considering she was chronically depressed and occasionally suicidal throughout her life. But then again, Parker didn’t like ugly things, including bad poetry, and especially bad poetry written by a 12-year-old “prodigy,” in this case a one Nathalia Crane, who claimed the top prize in the Lindbergh collection. Parker observed:

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Nathalia Crane gained fame after the publication of her first book of poetry, The Janitor’s Boy, which she wrote at age 10. After her second book of poetry was published in 1925, American poet Edwin Markham suggested the poems were part of a hoax because they exhibited a maturity of thought beyond the reach of a mere child. (A sidebar: Parker referred to Nathalia as a “Baby Peggy of poesy.” Baby Peggy, whose real name was Diana Serra Cary, was a beloved child silent film star. Still alive at this writing, she is 99 years old–the last living film star of the silent era).

90-105, 5, "Crane, Nathalia"; "Famous as a child prodigy, Nathalia Clara Ruth Crane (1913-1998) published her first book at age ten and later became a professor of literature. This photograph was used to illustrate a news story about ""The four ages of behavior,"" declaring that Crane, "
BAD POET’S SOCIETY?…Nathalia Crane in 1925. She would publish ten volumes of poetry and three novels, and would go on to a long career as a professor of English at San Diego State University. (Wikipedia)

Parker observed that “Lindbergh” was not a name well suited to poetry, and concluded with the hope that the aviator would be spared from having to read the “sickly, saccharine, inept, ill-wrought tributes”…

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Tilt Your Vote to Al

When New York Governor Al Smith announced his candidacy for U.S. President, New Yorker cartoonist Al Frueh had some fun with the governor’s habit of wearing his ever-present bowler hat at a tilt:

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They Dropped Like Flies

Nicholas Trott visited the 1928 New York Automobile Salon and rattled off this list of 43 car companies that would be displaying their shiny wares:

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Of those 43 companies, only 6 are in operation today. Interestingly, the car ads that appeared in the Jan. 7 issue were mostly from companies that are long gone. Here is a sampling:

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And finally, we close with Peter Arno and some dinner party hijinks…

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Next Time: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner…

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What to Drink During Prohibition

The Roaring Twenties were a strange confluence of the Puritan and libertine, perhaps best represented by Prohibition and the speakeasy night life it inspired. Many if not most of The New Yorker readers of the late 1920s were familiar with these establishments as well as with reliable bootleggers and rum runners. And for those of you following this blog we all know that “Tables for Two” columnist Lois “Lipstick” Long was THE voice of speakeasy and New York nightlife.

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May 29, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

I should point out here that Prohibition did not make consumption of alcohol illegal. The 18th Amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages, but it did not prohibit their use.

So if you had a connection to a smuggler bringing whisky from Scotland via Canada, for example, you could enjoy a Scotch at home without too much trouble, although the prices could be high. “The Talk of the Town” editors regularly reported black market wine and liquor prices (I include an adjoining Julian de Miskey cartoon):

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Note the mention of pocket flasks, which were an important item in a purse or vest pocket when one went to a nightclub or restaurant, where White Rock or some other sparkling water was sold as a mixer for whatever you happened to bring with you. You see a lot of this type of advertisement in the Prohibition-era New Yorker:

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I’ll bet those grinning golfers have something in their bags besides clubs.

And then there were ads like these, which I find terribly sad:

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“The Talk of the Town” also commented on the recent visit of British writer Aldous Huxley, who told his New York hosts that he admired American writers Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, and he also had praise for writer and critic H.L. Mencken, whom he likened to a farmer “of the better type:”

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Aldous Huxley in the 1920s. (Biography.com)

Other odds and ends from this issue…a clever drawing by Al Frueh for the “Profile” feature on New York Governor Al Smith:

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I include a photo of Al Smith for comparison:

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New York Gov. Al Smith (NY Daily News)

And this bit from “Of All Things,” complete with bad pun/racial slur:

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New Yorker readers in 1926 had little reason to believe that in a decade Mussolini would try to make good on his statement and join Hitler in the next world war.

Here’s a couple more ads from the issue that are signs of those times. Note the listing of Florida locations for those New Yorkers who were flocking to that new winter vacation destination:

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And this ad for an electric refrigerator…for those who could afford such newfangled things. The ice man was still plenty busy in 1926, but his days were numbered.

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And finally, a nod to springtime, and this excerpt of an illustration by Helen Hokinson for the “Talk” section:

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Next Time: After a Fashion…

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