Death Avenue Revisited

For nearly 100 years, giant steam locomotives (and later diesels) rumbled through the streets of Manhattan’s West Side, serving warehouses and industries via a route known as “Death Avenue.”

Jan. 18, 1930 cover by Constantin Alajalov (who apparently had just visited St. Moritz, home of the 1928 Winter Olympics).

Beginning in 1846, freight trains began operating at street level along 10th, 11th and 12th avenues. When mixed with an ever-growing crush of pedestrians, wagons, cars and trucks — hundreds were killed or mutilated, many of them schoolchildren. One of these streets, 10th Avenue, earned the moniker “Death Avenue” for its large share of fatalities. Although protests over the unsafe rail lines had been going on for decades, it wasn’t until 1929 that an agreement was reached to build an elevated rail system (which is now the popular High Line elevated park). In late December 1929 Mayor Jimmy Walker pried out the first spike at 11th Avenue and 60th Street. In “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White wryly observed:

GOOD OLD DAYS…Freight trains were introduced to the west side warehouse district in 1846. Block-long trains would run through cross streets and congested traffic, maiming and killing along the way (image at left circa 1920). At some point in the late 19th century trains were required to send a man ahead on horseback waving a red warning flag (see images at right, circa 1900); nevertheless, in the decade 1890-1900 nearly 200 deaths were recorded, mostly schoolchildren from nearby tenements. please click image to enlarge.
WESTSIDE COWBOYs…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue near 41st Street in the 1920s; men on horseback, known as the West Side Cowboys, rode ahead of the trains to warn pedestrians. Image at top right is of cowboy William Connolly on 11th Avenue in 1932; the last ride — George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the elevated track lifted most freight train traffic 30 feet in the air. Today the High Line serves as a mile-and-a-half-long elevated park, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

A New Yorker illustrator/cartoonist who spent a lot of time hanging around the working class neighborhoods on the West Side was Reginald Marsh. One of the first cartoonists employed by the New Yorker, Marsh was also a “Social Realist” painter who had studied with the Art Students League. The prevailing theme at the League was life among the working poor, the unemployed, and the homeless, especially after the market crash of 1929. For the Jan. 18 issue Marsh contributed this cartoon featuring a Death Avenue subject…

…more than two years earlier (the Nov. 5, 1927 issue) Marsh provided this illustration of life on Death Avenue…

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Birds of a Feather 

And speaking of the down and out, E.B. White commented on the thousands of panicked citizens who had flocked to the New York Life Insurance Company in search of some peace of mind under the wing of its leader Darwin P. Kingsley (1857-1932). Kingsley steered the company through the market crash relatively unscathed, thanks to its investments in government bonds and real estate, and not in common stocks.

DARWIN’S LAW…Darwin P. Kingsley saw the New York Life Insurance Company through the stock market crash. The company’s assets weathered the crash thanks to investments in government bonds and real estate, and not common stocks. At right, the New York Life Building at 51 Madison Avenue, designed by architect Cass Gilbert and opened in December 1928.(retropundit.wordpress.com)

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Oh Dear Me

As I’ve noted before, the New Yorker loved taking swipes at the New York Times, especially when the somewhat puritanical “Old Gray Lady” found it challenging to cover the more salacious side of life. In this case, according to E.B. White, it was the subject matter of a 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge

LES BELLES IMPURES…Actress June Walker (pictured here circa 1920) portrayed chorus girl Myra Deauville in the 1930 Broadway play Waterloo Bridge. In the play Myra finds herself out of work and stuck in London during World War I. She resorts to, um, prostitution to support herself. (IBDB)

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Nerd Alert

White also got a kick from reading accounts (presumably in the Times) about Albert Einstein’s “lecture” at the American Museum of Natural History. According to the New York Times’ Michael Pollak (F.Y.I., Aug. 10, 2012), “an unruly crowd of 4,500 stampeded through the (museum) to see a movie about Einstein’s work…it became known — relatively speaking — as the Einstein riot.”

JUST CHILLIN’…Albert Einstein circa 1930. The scientist was safely elsewhere when a science-crazed mob stormed the doors of the American Museum of Natural History, which was screening a film on the theory of relativity. (AP)

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Not Ready For My Closeup

The actress Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was a major star during the silent era who saw her career wane with the advent of the talkies, and then suddenly soar again with her unforgettable portrayal of reclusive silent film star Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In her profile of the actress, Helena Huntington Smith seemed to suggest that Swanson was something of an ugly duckling who managed to transcend her looks through a process of graceful maturation (Abe Birnbaum’s caricature notwithstanding). Some excerpts:

GLORIOUS FACES…Abe Birnbaum no doubt drew from images like these for his caricature of Gloria Swanson. From left, Swanson in a cloche hat in an undated photo; publicity photo for her 1928 film Sadie Thompson; publicity photo for 1929’s The Trespasser, Swanson’s first all-talking picture. (Pinterest/pixels.com)

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Good-Bye and Good Luck

Not too many 33 year olds write autobiographies, but then again Robert Graves was no typical 33-year-old. Good-Bye to All That, which Graves later described as “my bitter leave-taking of England,” was reviewed in the Jan. 18 “Recent Books” column. Note in the first paragraph how the reviewer (A.W.S.) suggested that writing about World War I (which ended less than 12 years earlier) was getting better “as the shock of the actual catastrophe wears off.” This is not unlike the writings (and films) about Viet Nam that began to emerge in the 1980s and 90s. An excerpt:

A LOT ON HIS MIND…from left, Robert Graves served in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in World War I (photo is probably from 1915); first edition of his autobiography Good-Bye to All That, which he published at age 33; Graves in 1935. (Oxford U/Wikipedia/fundaciorobertgraves.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with this elegant ad for a new art deco beauty salon at the Abraham & Straus department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn…

…for reference, a photo of salon, from 1930…

…the Jan. 18 issue contained a slew of ads enticing New Yorkers to flee the winter and head south — smartly attired, of course — like the couple in the upper right hand corner who look fashionably disinterested as they head out for some “playtime” in Havana (love the man’s combo black tie and bucket hat)…

…and you have to hand it to the folks at Sterling, who put the chic into high-powered boat engines…

…this has to be one of the very few times, perhaps the only time, that a toilet seat was advertised in the New Yorker…note how the folks at the Church company played on consumers’ social anxieties, proffering the suggestion that an old toilet seat might be the one thing that lingers in the memories of your houseguests…

…of course a lot of people eased their anxieties by lighting up, something they didn’t have to worry about because they were told it was actually good for their health (the manufacturers of Old Golds, for example, claimed their cigarettes created a “smoke screen” that kept away colds and other “throat dangers”). Not to be left behind, the makers of Lucky Strikes claimed their “toasting” process removed “dangerous irritants”…

…speaking of Old Golds, cartoonist John Held Jr. picked up some extra pocket change with this “woodcut” illustration for the brand…

…as for Held’s fellow New Yorker cartoonists, we have some more social anxiety courtesy of Alan Dunn

…a bit of chit chat among society ladies…Barbara Shermund looked in on a pair down in Palm Springs…

…while Helen Hokinson found her ladies contemplating new economic realities…

…and finally we have Peter Arno, and a punch line that failed to land…

Next Time: Strike Up The Band!

Not Much to Cheer About

The cover of the Nov. 9, 1929 issue belied the mood of New Yorkers still reeling from the stock market crash. But then again, football games and other entertainments would grow in importance as much-needed distractions from the harsh realities that lay ahead.

Nov. 9, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt. The title image is by James Montgomery Flagg, published in Life, November 15, 1929.

The New Yorker editors and writers were as bewildered as anyone in the aftermath of the crash. “The Talk of the Town” only gave it passing mention:

Robert Benchley, writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” also looked at the market crash from the angle of the newspapers in “The Wayward Press” column. Naturally, Benchley tried to find humor in the midst of the disaster, noting that the crash provided some relief from tedious election coverage:

When the Nov. 9 New Yorker went to press, the stock market crash was viewed as a serious setback (in the sixth paragraph Benchley mentioned numerous reports of suicides), but not something that would result in worldwide depression. Indeed, much of the issue was devoted to lighter fare, including a rather lengthy piece in “Talk” about the latest craze among the nation’s youth — the yo-yo:

The Lumar 33, made of tin, was one of the original yo-yos produced by Louis Marx beginning in 1929. Hugely popular, it helped launch the Marx toy company empire. (WorthPoint)

BUT HE’S NO YO-YO…Louis Marx’s version of the yo-yo would help him launch a toy empire and land him on the cover of Time magazine, Dec. 12, 1955. (Time)

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Just Wait Until They Get iPads

The New Yorker showed less enthusiasm for a plan by Fox studios to introduce talking pictures into schools, hospitals and churches. Writing for “Talk,” E.B. White observed:

TECHNOLOGY INVADES THE CLASSROOM…Left to right, a still from a 1930 educational film showing archeologist Earl Morris gluing together pottery shards at a dig near Mesa Verde National Monument; ca. 1932 title card for a science film; detail from a ca. 1930 educational film demonstrating the wonders of liquid nitrogen. (archive.org)

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And Then There Was Light

The introduction of talking pictures in the classroom owed something to Thomas Edison (1847-1931), inventor of the incandescent light bulb and a pioneer in the development of motion pictures, among many other things. The invention of the light bulb was commemorated at a “Golden Jubilee” celebration in Dearborn, Michigan, and “The Talk of the Town” offered these observations on the occasion:

GIVING THEIR TWO CENT’S WORTH…Lights were ablaze in Dearborn, Mich., to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the light bulb’s invention. “Light’s Golden Jubilee” was staged by public relations guru Edward Bernays on behalf of General Electric; below, commemorative postage stamp for the occasion. (prmuseum.org/Wikipedia)

The jubilee was the brainchild of Edward Bernays (1891-1995), often referred to as “the father of public relations.” The author of the 1928 book Propaganda, Bernays worked for dozens of corporations, and is known for his efforts in 1929 to promote cigarette smoking among women (branding them “torches of freedom”). Ironically, a man that helped many women develop a habit that led to their early deaths himself lived to the ripe age of 103.

Albert Einstein sent his best wishes from Berlin via transatlantic radio (see below), and special guests at the Jubilee included Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone, seen here talking with the nearly-deaf Thomas Edison about the development of radio in this short “talkie” filmed at the Jubilee on Oct. 21, 1929:

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Please Release Me

Nunnally Johnson (1897-1977) was a journalist and film critic before breaking into the movies himself in the mid-1930s as a writer, producer and director of such films as The Grapes of Wrath (writer, producer) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (writer, producer, director). As a critic Johnson learned what he didn’t like, including Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool, an early talking film that featured Jolson crooning the tear-jerker hit “Sonny Boy” to child actor Davey Lee, who portrayed his dying son. Nunnally responded with this parody titled “Sonny Boy’s Diary.” Some excerpts:

HOLD THE SCHMALTZ, AL…Nunnally Johnson, left, parodied the sentimental scenes Al Jolson shared with child actor Davey Lee in The Singing Fool. Johnson would go on to become a successful screenwriter, producer and director. (in.bookmyshow.com/virtual-history.com)

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Dream Space

New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton hailed the opening of a new museum, the Roerich, on the lower floors of the 27-story art deco Master Apartment Building. The building also housed the Master Institute of United Arts, founded in 1920 by Nicholas and Helena Roerich.

The art deco landmark Master Building on Riverside Drive (left, in 1929) originally housed the Roerich Museum in its lower floors. Today the Roerich is located in this brownstone at 319 West 107th. (Wikipedia)

FOOTNOTES FROM A FULL LIFE…Two of Nicholas Roerich’s paintings from the 1920s: at top, Remember, 1924; below, Drops of Life, 1924. (roerich.org)

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A Tenor for the Times

The crooner Rudy Vallée (1901-1986) became an overnight sensation after his Oct. 24, 1929 debut on national radio. Already a popular New York bandleader (and sometime local radio personality), his appearance on NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Radio Hour made him a national sensation, especially among young women. According to Ian Whitcomb in his book, The Coming of the Crooners, Vallée’s thin, wavering tenor was not well-suited to the stage (especially in pre-microphone days when booming voices prevailed) but it worked magic on the radio, soft voices ideal for this more intimate medium (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other popular crooners would soon follow). The New Yorker’s “On The Air” column (signed “A.S.”) had this to say about Vallée’s return:

BALM FOR WEARY SOULS…Rudy Vallée’s soothing voice and easy-going manner were just what the nation needed days after the stock market crash. According to Anthony Rudel of Old Time Radio, “At 8 pm on the night of October 24th, 1929, just after the ubiquitous Graham McNamee introduced him, Vallée became a national radio star.” It was the debut of NBC’s Fleischmann’s Yeast Radio Hour, which soon came to be known as the Rudy Vallée Show. (Fleischmann was also a major benefactor of the New Yorker). Photo at left, Vallée with McNamee; at right, child actor Dorothy Gray and Vallée in the comedy talkie, The Vagabond Lover (1929). (otrcat.com/IMDB)

A giant among conductors of the 20th century, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was already well-known to live audiences in New York, having conducted at both the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Unlike Vallée, the Italian conductor’s radio broadcast was limited to the range of the New York radio station WOR. Toscanini would make his national radio debut in the States in 1937, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

THE MAESTRO…Arturo Toscanini, renowned for his intensity and perfectionism, was said to have perfect pitch. After leaving fascist Italy in 1936, he became a household name across the US thanks to the NBC Symphony Orchestra’s presence both on national radio (beginning in 1937) and television (1948-1952). (The Economist)

The New Yorker also noted the successful transmission of three transatlantic broadcasts, including remarks spoken by Albert Einstein from Berlin to the Electric Light Golden Jubilee in Dearborn, Michigan:

RELATIVELY SPEAKING…Albert Einstein prepares to congratulate Thomas Edison via transatlantic radio on the 50th anniversary of the incandescent light bulb, Oct. 21, 1929. (UT College of Liberal Arts)

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From Our Advertisers

Now that we are post-market crash, we will be seeing the effects of that crash on New Yorker advertisers. Here are three advertisers from the Nov. 9 issue not long for the world: from left, the high-fashion salon Stewart & Company would file for bankruptcy and go out of business by the spring of 1930; Pierce-Arrow, maker of rolling status symbols for the wealthy, ceased car production in 1933; Hanan & Son, a leader in the mass production of shoes, would go bankrupt and fold by 1935.

Already at this early date advertisers were responding to tightening belts — this appeal from the Cuban Tourism Commission offered “an opportunity to forget business” while traveling on the cheap…

…other ads were the usual fare, this one from Lux Toilet soap featured its latest young celebrity, Dorothy McNulty (1908-2003), who changed her name to Penny Singleton in 1937 before starring in more than two-dozen Blondie-themed comedies (based on the Chic Young comic strip) with co-star Arthur Lake (who portrayed Dagwood Bumstead). She dyed her naturally brunette hair (as seen in the ad) blonde for the first Blondie movie in 1938, and continued to do so for the rest of her long life. A career that truly spanned several generations, she also provided the voice for Jane Jetson in The Jetsons in its original airing in the early 1960s and in later revivals through 1990…

THE MANY FACES OF PENNY SINGLETON…At left, before she was the film star Penny Singleton, Dorothy McNulty was a popular star on Broadway, as this ad from the Nov. 9 New Yorker attests. At top, Singleton with Blondie co-star Arthur Lake in the first installment of that popular 27-film series, 1938; a still from The Jetsons 1962-63, for which Singleton provided the voice of Jane Jetson. (IMDB/Hanna-Barbera)

…on to other ads, the one on the left is another sad example of how manufacturers of spirits tried to market non-alcoholic versions of their libations to Prohibition-starved Americans (“especially distilled for the American market”)…at right, an ad from Knox hatters, with a somber rendering of a young woman (maybe she’s headed to the party in the other ad) wearing a fashion that would be popular in the early Thirties…the old flapper hat, along with the Jazz Age, was dead as a doornail…

…oh well, at least you could stay healthy by smoking lots of cigarettes…

…we’ve seen ads illustrated by other New Yorker cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, and Julian De Miskey; Helen Hokinson got in on the action with this ad touting G. Washington instant coffee…the first instant coffee to be produced on a mass scale, G. Washington was so well known it was referred to as a “cup of George.” The brand was discontinued in 1961…

…on to our comics, an awkward moment courtesy Peter Arno

W.P. Trent illustrated a backstage exchange regarding the ado over a popular dance troupe, the Albertina Rasch Girls…

…for reference…

MGM publicity photo from 1929 of the Albertina Rasch Girls, who traveled to Hollywood to appear in the Technicolor finale of the film Hollywood Revue of 1929. (dimitritiomkin.com)

…and John Reynolds explored the clash of the Old World and the New…

…and before I go, a correction from my last post, in which I incorrectly attributed this poem in the Nov. 2 issue to British humorist P.G. Wodehouse:

An alert reader kindly pointed out that “Ode to Peter Stuyvesant” isn’t by Wodehouse, but by another person with the initials PGW — Philip G. Wylie.

Screenwriter and satirist Philip G. Wylie in an undated photo. (Wikipedia)

I always enjoy hearing from readers of this blog, and especially appreciate comments that help me keep this account historically accurate, as well as fun and informative.

Next Time: Back to Business…