Is Sex Necessary?

James Thurber and E.B. White shared an office at the New Yorker that has been described as “the size of a hall bedroom.” This proximity doubtless supported a rich exchange of ideas that coalesced in their 1929 bestseller, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do.

Sept. 28, 1929 cover by Julian De Miskey.

A spoof of popular sex manuals and how-to books that dealt with Freudian theories, the book featured chapters (alternately written by Thurber and White) that delved into pseudo-sexual conditions such as “Frigidity in Men” — the title of a chapter by White excerpted in the Sept. 28, 1929 issue of the New Yorker…

Expanding on the condition known as “recessive knee,” White coined the term “Fuller’s retort,” and claimed it was “now a common phrase in the realm of psychotherapy”…

THE ARTIST EMERGES…Although James Thurber had yet to publish one of his drawings in the New Yorker magazine, Is Sex Necessary? featured 42 of them, including the illustration at right that demonstrated the male greeting posture. (brainpickings.org)

No other editor besides founder Harold Ross did more to give the New Yorker its shape and voice than Katharine Angell, who recommended to Ross the hiring of both White and Thurber. It is worth noting that White would marry Angell in the same month, November 1929, as the publication of Is Sex Necessary? In their case, sex was necessary, as Katharine would give birth to their son, Joel White, the following year.

DYNAMIC TRIO…Katharine Angell (inset) would be instrumental in bringing both E.B. White (left) and James Thurber to the New Yorker. (Pinterest/Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

A New Rabbit Hole

In other news from the world of publishing, “The Talk of the Town” (also largely a product of Thurber and White) noted the publication of a new edition of Alice in Wonderland that featured a re-drawn Alice with bobbed hair and the slender profile of a 1920s flapper. White mused:

NEW ALICE, MEET OLD ALICE…A 1929 edition of Alice and Wonderland featured a Jazz Age Alice (left) as rendered by Willy Pogany. At right, Sir John Tenniel’s original Alice, from the 1866 edition. (comicartfans.com/girlmuseum.org)

 *  *  *

Rise of the Boob Tube

Also in “Talk,” it was reported that the BBC would be putting television on the air “five times a week for a half an hour.” The broadcasts, on a single channel, featured speeches, comic monologues and popular songs. The technology did not allow sound and image to be transmitted together, so “viewers” (there were only a handful of sets) first heard each piece in audio, followed by a mute moving image:

COMMERCIAL-FREE…Early television promotor Sydney Moseley (left) and two employees of the Baird Television Development Co. watch the inaugural television broadcast on a “Noah’s Ark Televisor,” Sept. 30, 1929. The televisor was the invention of British TV pioneer John Logie Baird (1888-1946). (scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk)

 *  *  *

Mutt & Jeff & Peggy

This odd little item in “Talk” focused on the literary interests of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an actress and dancer best known for her lavish lifestyle and multiple marriages and affairs. She was a Kardashian of her day — famous for being famous. Despite her flamboyant ways, Joyce seemed to have some rather pedestrian tastes, at least when it came to her reading pleasure…

JEEVES, BRING ME SOME LIGHT READING…Peggy Hopkins Joyce (left) might have preferred the high life, but her tastes in reading seemed more of the rabble. She is pictured here in her Hollywood debut, the 1926 silent film The Skyrocket. The film bombed, and Joyce made just one more screen appearance before moving on to other things. (Bizarre Los Angeles/mycomicshop.com)

 *  *  *

Ring Cycle

Ring Lardner contributed a casual titled “Large Coffee,” in which he checks into a hotel to escape life’s distractions and get some writing done. The piece consisted of diary entries largely concerned with Lardner’s inability to get a proper order of coffee. He began with an editor’s note that described how his corpse was found in the room, along with the diary. Some excerpts:

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES helped fuel the genius of writer Ring Lardner. (Brittanica)

 *  *  *

Master of the Screwball

Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was known for taking the screwball comedy and turning into something more than a simple farce. Reviewer Robert Benchley saw the potential in this young Broadway producer, whose second play, Strictly Dishonorable, opened to great acclaim:

KEEPING IT LIGHT…Tullio Carminati as Count Di Ruvo and Muriel Kirkland as Isabelle Parry in Broadway’s Strictly Dishonorable, 1929. Producer Preston Sturges reportedly wrote the hit play in just six days. (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

Have No Fear

Morris Markey (1899-1950) often took on the lurid and sensationalist reporting of his day in a column he established at the New Yorker titled “Reporter at Large.” In his Sept. 28 column titled “Fear, Inc.” Markey chided everyone from the newspapers and Hollywood to the headline-grabbing NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, and painted a picture of organized crime that was less violent and glamorous, and a lot more mundane…

MAKE SURE YOU GET MY GOOD SIDE…NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen loved to make headlines with his “get tough on crime” approach. He was was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” (wnyc.org)

Markey suggested that rather than screeching tires and blazing Tommy guns, most of the crime in the city was just the humdrum of making money…

Sadly, Markey himself would meet a violent end, dying of a gunshot wound at the age of 51. It is unclear whether it was self-inflicted.

 *  *  *

The Last Laugh

The year 1929 saw the passing of Minnie Marx, the beloved mother of the Marx Brothers comedy troupe. Alexander Woollcott offered this tribute in his “Shouts and Murmurs” column…

MY LITTLE CLOWNS…Minnie Marx with her sons, The Marx Brothers, circa 1920. (Find a Grave)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Harper’s Bazar began weekly publication in 1867, catering to women in the middle and upper classes. The magazine was a frequent advertiser in the upstart New Yorker, no doubt perceiving a considerable overlap among its readers. This full page ad in the Sept. 28 issue of the New Yorker featured a column by the Bazar’s Paris fashion correspondent, Marjorie Howard

…no doubt the New Yorker’s own fashion editor, Lois Long (1901-1974), read her rival’s column with great interest, and, like the magazine she wrote for, Long was the young upstart compared to the veteran Howard (1878-1958). However, according to future New Yorker editor William Shawn, Long was the superior writer. Upon Long’s death in 1974, Shawn said “Lois Long invented fashion criticism,” adding that she “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.” Here is a brief excerpt from Long’s fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” in the Sept. 28 issue…

OF A FASHION…Majorie Howard (left) served as fashion editor for Harper’s Bazar in the late 1920s and 1930s. Lois Long (right) wrote the New Yorker fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” from 1927 to 1970. (findagrave.com/Vassar College)

…looking at some of the ads from the magazine’s back pages, here’s one from Scribner’s announcing the publication of A Farewell to Arms (a first edition for only $2.50)…

…the back pages of the New Yorker near the theater section were filled with signature ads promoting various entertainments…

…this ad from Kargère referenced an exchange from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray: “They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,” chuckled Sir Thomas…” Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the Duchess. “They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry…

…several ads and filler illustrations from the Sept. 28 issue featured posh folks dressed for fox hunting season, the makers of Spud cigarettes among them…

…this ad from Frigidaire featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose style at the time somewhat resembled Peter Arno’s

…for comparison, an Arno cartoon from 1930…

From Peter Arno’s book Hullabaloo, 1930. (attemptedbloggery.blogspot.com)

and Arno’s full-page contribution to the Sept. 28 issue…

…another artist at the New Yorker who along with Arno often received a full page for her work was Helen Hokinson, here looking in on life at Columbia U…

…and there were artists who were lucky to get any space at all, including Kent Starrett, who probably drew on his own experiences at the New Yorker’s front office for this entry…

…and finally, Garrett Price illustrated the challenges of the “house call”…

Next Time: American Royalty…

 

How Charles Shaw Felt About Things

Some people really do lead charmed lives: Take for example Charles Green Shaw. Born to wealth, he was a fixture in the glamorous social scene of Jazz Age New York, but was also a key player in its intellectual and artistic life. An accomplished author as well as a poet and illustrator, Shaw turned to painting in his late thirties and became a leading figure in the world of abstract art.

May 18, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

Shaw (1892-1974) was an early contributor to the New Yorker, penning more than 30 pieces for the magazine between 1925 and 1932, including three short contributions to the very first issue (Feb. 21, 1925). Here’s one of them:

That short piece anticipated a much longer entry by Shaw four years later—in the May 18, 1929 New Yorker—in a column titled “How I Feel About Things.” An excerpt…

YEAH & MEH…Charles Shaw liked Central Park at dusk; Amsterdam Avenue, not so much. (Time Freeze Photos/NYC Municipal Archives)
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON…Top left, Charles G. Shaw in 1945. Clockwise, from top right, Untitled Abstraction, 1943, oil on fiberboard; Wrigley’s, 1937, oil on canvas; photo of Wrigley’s gum package on top of a postcard image of New York City. On the back of the photo Shaw had written “idea for montage.” (Wrigley painting courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/other images from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

…one more excerpt from the Shaw column…

Shaw would contribute more columns to the New Yorker in this vein: four more titled “How I Feel About Things” (1929-1931) followed by “How I Look at Things in General” (1931), and his final two New Yorker columns (1931-1932), “Things I Have Never Liked.”

He also illustrated children’s books, including two by Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame). In 1947, Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk, a book that introduced children to abstract art. It remains in print and popular today.

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS…Shaw provided illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown’s Black and White (1944) and The Winter Noisy Book (1947). (Harper)
STILL POPULAR…Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk as a children’s introduction to abstract art. (Kinder Books)

 *  *  *

In the “Talk of the Town,” James Thurber looked at “high-living” trends among occupants atop the city’s newest skyscrapers, including developer Irwin Chanin:

CROWN JEWELS…The Chanin Building at 122 E. 42nd Street sports a distinctive crown that contains a wraparound terrace (now closed) at the 56th floor. A theater on the 50th and 51st floors, just below Irwin S. Chanin’s executive suite, was later converted into office space.(aviewoncities.com/untappedcities.com)
A THRONE IN THE SKY…The art deco bathroom in the 52nd floor executive suite of architect and real estate developer Irwin S. Chanin was designed by Jacques Delamarre. (Pinterest)
AERIAL GYMNASTICS…1930s postcard image of the Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd. At right, the building’s rooftop gymnasium. (nyc-architecture.com/Tony Hisgett)

…Thurber continued his survey downtown in the financial district, and noted the proliferation of “lanterns” atop various skyscrapers…

ALL THE RAGE…”Lanterns” of various styles were popular toppers to Jazz Age skyscrapers. Above, the 24-story Consolidated Gas Building (now the Con Edison tower) by day and night. (Architect/Office for Metropolitan History/Michael Falco for The New York Times)
TRY TO TOP THIS…The distinctive lantern of the New York Central Building at 230 Park Avenue, now called the Helmsley Building  (andrewcusack.com/Wikipedia)

*  *  *

Waldorf Adieu, Part Two

For a second week “The Talk of the Town” led off with an item about the demise of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, this time attempting to put it into some perspective…

…and Charles Merz offered a lengthy account of the auctions that were already taking place at the hotel as everything from grand pianos (125 in all) to a nine-foot-tall, five-ton, bronze-and-mahogany clock either went on the block or into storage…

GOING, GOING…Illustration depicting an auction of items from the hotel. At right, the Waldorf’s nine-foot-tall, five-ton clock, shown here on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A gift from Queen Victoria, the clock was acquired after the fair by John Jacob Astor IV, builder of the Astoria part of the old Waldorf-Astoria. He had it placed near the old hotel’s Rose Room restaurant. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia)
STILL TICKING…The clock as it appears today in the lobby of the new Waldorf-Astoria, which was completed in 1931. A gilded Statue of Liberty was added to the top of the clock in 1902, a gift from the French government. (Wikimedia/Elizabeth Doerr)

…Merz observed that although lavish tapestries, statuary, heavy furniture and other large items were up for sale, many buyers showed up merely to acquire a small memento…

IF THAT IS YOUR THING…Ornate furnishings (such as this French rococo-style furniture) were likely purchased at the auction by someone who actually had room for them. (Pinterest)

…Merz concluded that in the end, these “lesser treasures” will serve as props that will be handed down to the next generations, along with stories about the great and not-so-great who once slept or dined at the old hotel…

LAST DANCE…Workers emptying the old Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in 1929. (Library of Congress)

The May 18 issue featured yet another item on the Waldorf-Astoria — in “The Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley (under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes”) suggested that the story on the hotel’s demise had been milked for all it was worth….

 *  *  *

The Algonquin Wits

Speaking of milking a story, Alexander Woollcott playfully referenced his own material in the May 18 issue—indeed, quoting a profile he had written in the very same issue. Woollcott penned a humorous piece on friend and fellow Algonquin Round Table wit George S. Kaufman (caricature by Miguel Covarrubias). An excerpt:

…a bit later in the profile, Woollcott observed…

…a few pages later in the same issue, Woollcott offered more observations on his friend in his weekly “Shouts and Murmurs” column…quoting the above paragraph…

Kaufman would have his own say in 1939 with his hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (written with Moss Hart). The play’s main character, a cantankerous misanthrope named Sheridan Whiteside, was closely based on Woollcott.

SPARRING PARTNERS…George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott often matched wits around the famed Algonquin Round Table. (Pinterest)
OUT OF SORTS…The cantankerous misanthrope Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on Alexander Woollcott) was portrayed by Monty Woolley in the 1939 hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. The play was adapted into a 1942 movie with Woolley (left) reprising his role as Sheridan Whiteside. Playing opposite Woolley are Bette Davis (center) and Ann Sheridan. (oldhollywoodtimes.com)

What did Woollcott think of the treatment? According to an article featured in Story of the Week (Library of America), he loved it: “When the play went on its West Coast tour, he even stepped into the lead role, treating audiences to the sight of a celebrity acting as a satirical version of a character based on his own public persona. At the end of one performance, cheered on by repeated curtain calls, Woollcott riffed off one of his character’s signature lines from the play and announced to the audience that he planned to sue the authors for $150,000.”

Those were the days…

 *  *  *

Distracted Drivers

In his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott described a new gadget that could bring new levels of pleasure (or danger) to the driving experience: the car radio:

The Transitone was probably the first production car radio in the U.S., and looked something like this (left image):

VACUUM TUBES are exposed under the dash of this car (left) outfitted with a Transitone radio. At right, a Crosley car radio from 1931. (radiomuseum.org)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s cold creme continued to land endorsements from the landed gentry, this time from 30-year-old Lady Violet Astor (née Violet Mary Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, Dame of the Order of St. John), whose hair was described “as ripe as wheat,” her skin “pink and white as a hedge rose.” Okay, I’ll try a jar…

…and for more snob appeal, advertisements from American luxury carmaker Pierce-Arrow often featured messages that linked its cars to a lineage of earlier models, suggesting their automobiles had a well-bred, timeless quality (as opposed to the novelties found in cars driven by the plebeian classes). The caption reads: “Both people and Pierce-Arrows of the former day share with today’s group the distinguished quality of the patrician”…

…the makers of Glyco “Thymoline” also drew upon the past to make a point about their soap, stating that “the girl of yesteryear had plenty of protection under sun bonnets and parasols,” whereas today’s young woman boldly races off to play golf without even bothering to put up the windshield. She’ll need Glyco to scrub off the bugs, dust and bits of gravel that will likely kick up into her face…

…One thing you notice at the end of the 20’s is the proliferation of color ads in the New Yorker, some quite lavish including this appeal from Electrolux, which depicted all of the new apartments popping up around the city powered by their gas appliances…

…and we have another lovely rendering by Carl “Eric” Erickson urging readers to smoke Camel cigarettes…

…and this ad caught my eye for its depiction of a house in the future, namely the year 1949 — you land your personal airplane on the roof and relax in your dynamic, angular furniture while a robot butler shakes up cocktails for you and your top-hatted friend…

…the house in the ad somewhat resembles this 1929 drawing by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze

…we have another ad from Knox hatters (drawn by Rea Irvin) that featured an unfashionable, portly man (Napoleon B. Niblick) being snubbed by some Westchester toffs…

…our comics are provided by C.W. Anderson

…and Peter Arno

Next Time: Let Them Eat Cake…

 

 

Million Dollar Mermaid

Our sense of what is old and what it is new becomes skewed during periods of rapid change, and such was the case in 1920s New York when large swaths of the old city were swept away and replaced by massive towers that seemingly rose overnight. Places like the Hippodrome Theatre, a 1905 Beaux-Arts confection barely 24 years old, seemed positively ancient in those heady times.

Feb. 9, 1929 cover by Helen Hokinson. Feb. 16, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

For the most part the New Yorker was enthusiastic about the changing skyline, as its namesake was claiming the crown as America’s premier city; but occasionally a melancholy note would be struck when a familiar institution appeared in decline or fated for the wrecking ball. In the Feb. 9, 1929 “Talk of the Town,” E.B. White wistfully recalled the old days of the Hippodrome, once the largest theatre in the world and the pride of turn-of-the-century New York:

FOR THE MASSES…The Hippodrome, built in 1905, provided entertainment to millions of New Yorkers who couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway play. The brainchild of Frederick Thompson and Elmer S. Dundy, entrepreneurs of Coney Island’s Luna Park, the Hippodrome was torn down in 1939 after more than a decade of decline. (1905 photo courtesy Library of Congress)
A REALLY BIG SHOOO…One of the first performances at the Hippodrome was a four-hour spectacle: A Yankee Circus on Mars (advertised on the theatre’s marquee in photo above). The 1905 production included 280 chorus girls, 480 soldiers, a parade of cars driven by elephants, an equestrienne ballet, acrobats, and a cavalry charge through a lake. (Image from Harper’s Weekly via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)
The Hippodrome’s main theatre could accommodate 5,300 patrons in seats that were four inches wider than normal theatre seats. The dome over the “Roman style” auditorium encompassed an acre. (Broadway Magazine 1905 via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Hippodrome held such a place in the heart of the New Yorker that the magazine offered further reminiscences in the Feb. 16 issue, this time penned by managing editor Harold Ross:

For demonstrations of diving and “mermaid spectacles,” the Hippodrome stage featured an eight-foot high steel tank in four sections, with a front of plate glass. Manned diving bells were also used to raise and lower “mermaids” during performances.

OLD TIMEY FX…Illustration from Nature magazine (left) depicts a diving bell used in the Hippodrome’s swimming and diving tank to raise and lower performers. At top, circa 1910 advertisement; at bottom, the “Court of the Golden Fountain” in the the theatre’s 1905-06 presentation of A Society Circus. (les-sources-du-nil.tumblr.com/flickr/NYC Architecture)

Ross wrote about the Hippodrome’s “diving girls,” who would dive into a tank of water from a height of 90 feet, sometimes at a serious cost to their health:

HIPPODROME’S HEYDAYS…In the early 1900s Australian swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman (left, in an image from her 1918 book, How to Swim) was a famed performer at the Hippodrome, as was illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini, shown here in 1918  with Jennie the Elephant in a performance of the vanishing elephant trick. (Monash University/americaslibrary.gov/wildabouthoudini.com)
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID…famed around the world by that moniker, swimmer and later actress Annette Kellerman is considered the originator of the one‐piece bathing suit, which she models at left in a photo taken around 1907. At right, advertisement for Kellerman’s 1916 film A Daughter of the Gods (now lost), in which Kellerman achieved another first: the first complete nude scene by a major star. The William Fox Studio made much of Kellerman’s figure, promoting her as the perfect woman by “comparing” her measurements to the likes of Cleopatra and Venus de Milo. (Wikipedia/consumingcultures.net)

Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was a big draw at the Hippodrome, and helped popularize the sport of synchronised swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in theatre’s giant plate glass tank. In that same year she shocked Bostonians by appearing on a local beach in a “daring” one‐piece bathing suit (shown above), and was arrested for indecency. This was at a time when a woman’s standard bathing apparel consisted of a blouse, skirt, stockings and swimming shoes.

Unlike some of the unfortunate Hippodrome divers who later lost their eyesight due to cranial pressure from high dives, Kellerman went on to a long and active life (she died in 1975, at age 88). Known throughout the world as Australia’s “Million Dollar Mermaid” (and portrayed by Esther Williams in a 1952 movie by the same name), Kellerman appeared in more than a dozen films between 1909 and 1924. She also launched her own line of swimwear and wrote several books on swimming, beauty and fitness.

ALL WET…At top, Annette Kellerman swimming underwater in a gold sequined dress, possibly from  Queen of the Sea (1918, now lost). Thirty-four years later Esther Williams (below) would portray Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid. (historycouncilnsw.org.au/gsgs/movieactors.com)

*  *  *

City of Lights

While E.B. White got misty-eyed about the old Hippodrome in the Feb. 9 issue, his fellow New Yorker writer and friend James Thurber was thrilling on the new skyscrapers lighting the city’s skyline:

BEJEWELED CROWN…The New York Central Building depicted in a 1929 promotional painting by Chesley Bonestell. (albanyinstitute.org)

Thurber noted that “100,000 candlepower” would light the golden crown of the New York Central Building, the tallest structure in the Grand Central complex. Over at the new Chanin Building, a whopping 25 million candle-power would be trained on its art deco crown.

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…At left, the nearly 700-foot-tall Chanin Building joined the race for the sky in 1928-29. At right, a 1929 drypoint etching by Australian-born artist Martin Lewis depicted the magical glow of the Chanin Building from the viewpoint of a tenement dweller on a fire escape. (favrify.com/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Advertisers in the New Yorker reflected the mood of this new city of skyscraper canyons. From the Feb. 16 issue:

Ralph Ingersoll and Thurber also wrote in the Feb. 16 “Talk” about plans for “Rockefeller City…”

…and as we know, this was to become the famed Rockefeller Center, a complex of 19 buildings covering 22 acres between 48th and 51st streets. Led by by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the complex was conceived as an urban renewal project to revitalize Midtown (hard to imagine today). The land was originally envisioned as a site for a new Metropolitan Opera house, but when financing fell through the land’s owner, Columbia University, leased it to Rockefeller. Of the anticipated effect of the project, Ingersoll and Thurber wrote:

And for the record, the Feb. 9 issue featured another name that would shape the future of the city—J. Pierpont Morgan was the subject of a lengthy two-part profile penned by John K. Winkler.

 * * *

Shouts & Murmurs

The Feb. 16 marks a significant date on the New Yorker calendar—the first appearance of Alexander Woollcott’s famed “Shouts & Murmurs” column:

Writing in the “Double Take” section in the July 18, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Michaud notes that “Shouts & Murmurs” was Woollcott’s personal column, appearing weekly in the magazine for five years. Perhaps no person other Harold Ross himself could be more associated with the earliest origins of the magazine —  Woollcott was a colleague of Ross’s at Stars and Stripes during the First World War, and introduced Ross to his first wife, Jane Grant, who was also a considerable influence on the early magazine.

Michaud writes that Woollcott used the column “to opine on, lampoon, and attack the culture and society of the day. In his distinct and at times excessive style, he reviewed books, wrote spoofs, distributed gossip, and generally rankled as many people as he could.” Woollcott ended the column in December 1934, but it was revived in 1992 as a regular venue for many notable humorists, and continues to this day.

A REAL CHARACTER…Alexander Woollcott, in his idea of casual wear. He once informed his friend and New Yorker colleague Corey Ford: “Ford, I plan to spend three days at your house in New Hampshire next week.” Not overly pleased to be hosting such a demanding guest, Ford uttered a meek “That will be swell.” “I’ll be the judge of that,” Woolcott warned him. (From Elizabeth Olliff, “An Evening at the Algonquin.”)

* * *

Up In Smoke

Jumping back to the Feb. 9 “Talk of the Town,” we have this complaint from the magazine regarding celebrity cigarette endorsements. Although the magazine derived a lot of revenue from cigarette ads, Harold Ross insisted on a strict separation between editorial and advertising, allowing his writers free reign to bite the hands that fed them, if they so wished:

Here’s the offending ad, which was featured in the Feb. 23 issue:

In the Feb. 9 issue, Groucho Marx couldn’t resist getting in on the endorsement action…

…nor could Ross’s old friend George Gershwin, who touted the health benefits of Lucky Strikes in the Feb. 16 issue…

In other ads from the Feb. 16 issue, we find that for all of the technological advances in the 1920s, a decent car heater still eluded automakers. Hence…

…on the other hand, we also have this very up-to-date product—the forerunner of today’s rolling airplane luggage…

…and if you happened to be flying south, you might have first checked in with Helena Rubinstein to make sure you had the right “face fashions”…

And finally our cartoons, all from the Feb. 9 issue. This first is a six-panel series by Al Frueh that originally ran diagonally, top to bottom, across a two-page spread. It took a shot at the self-promoting police commissioner, Grover Whalen, who was not a friend to the New Yorker due to his ham-fisted approach to Prohibition enforcement…

…and Leonard Dove took a shot at some posh folks outside of their urban element…

…and finally, Alan Dunn examined the wages of beauty…

Next Time: Modern English Usage…

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

 * * *

He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

 * * *

Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

* * *

Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…

 

Man About Town

When Jimmy Walker was elected mayor of New York City in 1926, the city finally had a leader that matched the mood of the times. A dapper lover of music and nightlife, he openly took a Ziegfield dancer as his mistress, often fled the city for European vacations, and was known to begin meetings with the pop of a Champagne cork.

May 19, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

No doubt many New Yorker readers liked the Jazz Age spirit of their mayor, and who really cared about his “accomplishments” as long as the city continued to boom and its smart set continued to prosper? E.B. White, writing for the magazine’s “Talk of the Town,” concluded as much:

LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION!…Mayor Walker accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
QUEEN FOR A DAY…Mayor Walker (in top hat) welcomes Queen Marie of Romania on the steps of City Hall in October 1926. Huge and enthusiastic crowds braved the rain to welcome the queen to the city. (Acme Newspapers)
GOOD SPORT…Mayor Jimmy Walker presides over the first shot in the city’s annual marble tournament on June 3, 1928. (New York Times)

 *  *  *

Remembrance of Things Past

Although the New Yorker embraced the spirit imbued in the city’s rapidly changing skyline, there was always a tinge of regret when landmarks fell to wrecking balls and the city erased its past faster than one could comprehend. And so the magazine was a strong and early supporter of the establishment of the Museum of the City of New York, founded in 1923 and housed in Gracie Mansion (now the mayor’s official residence) until a permanent, neo-Georgian-style museum was finally erected in 1929-30 on Fifth Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets.

KEEPING TIME…Museum of the City of New York (abigailkirsch.com)

 *  *  *

No Beer Left to Cry In

As the Museum of the City of New York scrambled to preserve a past that was quickly being erased across Manhattan, another venerable institution prepared to close its doors for good—Allaire’s Scheffel Hall—which in its heyday was a favorite watering hole of artists, musicians, and writers including Stephen Crane. Allaire’s, located in a Gramercy Park neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany,” was the latest victim of Prohibition; it was, after all, hard to run a beer hall without the beer.

Amazingly, the building still stands, now home to a pilates and yoga studio.

SIGN OF THE TIMES…Now a yoga and pilates studio…Scheffel Hall at 190 Third Avenue in the Gramercy Park as it appeared in 2009. It was designated a New York City landmark in 1997. (Steve Minor)

 *  *  *

The “Talk of the Town” had its usual bits and pieces of happenings in the city, including this mild jab at the rather staid New York Times:

KEEPING IT DECENT…The actress Betty Starbuck, circa 1930. (CondeNast)

 *  *  *

Silent film star Buster Keaton’s latest picture, Steamboat Bill, Jr., won the approval of New Yorker film critic O.C., and Keaton’s co-star Marion Byron received extra props for her “gusto”…

HANGING IN THERE…Marion Byron and Buster Keaton in 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. (Virtual History)

 *  *  *

Truth in Advertising

Outside of politics this is one of the most cynical uses of the word “truth” I’ve ever seen. Since the woman isn’t smoking herself, I’m guessing she is reading a letter from someone (son, daughter, boyfriend) who has learned the truth about Camels and has decided to share it in a letter. How sweet.

In 1928 color images such as the Camel ad above brightened an increasing number of New Yorker ads. Color was artfully used in a number of spots, including the left panel of this two-page ad for a new cosmetic compact…

The issue also featured this comic sketch by Rea Irvin of New Yorker critic and commentator (and hypochondriac) Alexander Woollcott…

…and keeping on the literary side, this comic by Isidore Klein…

 *  *  *

The May 26, 1928 issue the “Talk of the Town” turned its attention to sound in motion pictures, or rather, turned its ears away from the “movie tone” sound effects becoming common in the waning days of the Silent Era.

May 26, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Everyday sounds, in particular, proved jarring to the ears of those who were accustomed to the relative quiet of silent movies:

“Talk” also looked in on the writer Thornton Wilder, who was planning to summer in Europe with his friend, the literary-minded boxer Gene Tunney.

REFLECTING GLORY…Thornton Wilder returning to the U.S. on the S.S. Britannic, 1935. (thorntonwilder.com)

 *  *  *

More Truth in Advertising

The manufacturers of Old Gold cigarettes were also in pursuit of the truth in this ad featured in the May 26 issue, backing up the claim with a “blindfold test” on none other than the daughter of J. P. Morgan…

Deception in advertising wasn’t limited to cigarettes, however. The makers of Lysol had their own nefarious scheme that shamed women into using their product as a form of birth control (referred to in the ad below with the euphemism “feminine hygiene”). Not only was it ineffective as a contraceptive, it was also corrosive to one’s privates.

The ad is also appalling for casting the responsibility for birth control entirely on the woman. But then again, where are we today?

On to other questionable health pursuits, this ad in the May 26 issue touted the “radio-active waters” of Glen Springs, a hotel and sanatorium located above Seneca Lake in New York. Searching for oil on the site in late 19th century, the owners struck not black gold but rather a black, briny water that they claimed had greater curative powers than those found in Germany’s famed Nauheim Springs.

Why they called the waters “radio-active” escapes me. There were a lot of quack medical cures floating around in the 1920s—some of them quite dangerous—so I’m guessing that the proprietors of Glen Springs were adding radium to the water in some of their treatments, or maybe just claiming that radium was present in the water. Although Marie Curie (a pioneering researcher on radioactivity) and others protested against radiation therapies, a number of corporations and physicians marketed radioactive substances as miracle cure-alls, including radium enema treatments and radium-containing water tonics.

The Glen Springs Hotel at Watkins Glen, NY. It remained a noted landmark of the area until it was demolished in 1996. (nyfalls.com)

 *  *  *

And finally, our cartoons for the May 26 issue, in which Barbara Shermund and Peter Arno explore the ups and downs of courtship…

Next Time: Toward the Air…

 

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. (NY Times)

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. Writing for the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” Peter Vischer 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…

Fun With Harold

The Nov. 6, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was actually two issues, one for the newsstands and subscribers and the other a rare parody issue privately published and presented to founding editor Harold Ross on his 34th birthday.

Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 3.03.49 PM
The cover of the “official” issue (left) for November 6, 1926, was illustrated by William Troy, the parody issue by Rea Irvin.

The parody issue’s cover featured a silhouette of Ross (drawn by Rea Irvin, as “Penaninsky”) in the pose of dandy Eustace Tilley, looking at spider bearing a strong resemblance to Alexander Woollcott, an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker who first met Ross overseas when the two worked on the fledgling Stars and Stripes newspaper.

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.16.19 PM
Alexander Woollcott and Harold Ross (Britannica; Jane Grant Collection, University of Oregon)

Ralph Barton’s contribution to the parody issue…

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 2.44.38 PM
(From About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, By Ben Yagoda)

…and an unsigned contribution that took a poke at Ross’s efforts to create efficient procedures at the magazine’s office:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.32.46 PM
Excerpt from Defining New Yorker Humor, by Judith Yaross Lee

In the other Nov. 6 issue, “The Talk of the Town” editors commented on the death of the famed magician Harry Houdini:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.43.59 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.44.26 PM

6b32c48fe9a5da6be045694c35294681
ONE OF HIS FINAL ACTS…Houdini appearing before a Senate committee to expose fake spiritualists in February 1926. (Granger.com)

“Talk” also noted a new book called Elmer Gantry was being penned by Sinclair Lewis:

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.45.20 PM

The book was a biting satire of the hypocrisy of fanatical preachers during the 1920s. It created a public furor when it was published in 1927. Another “Talk” item mocked the taste of wealthy New Yorkers for the latest exotic gadgets…

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.40.08 PM

…but the same issue was also filled with the usual advertisements appealing to those very same desires of the “Smart” set. Here’s a couple of gems, so to speak…

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.37.43 PM

Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 3.38.34 PM

Next Time: The Cotton Club & Other Distractions…

8a3e8956e7cf51e58975801865fdce55