The Unspeakables

For all its embrace of the modern city and its technological wonders, the New Yorker mostly despaired of the changes wrought by the introduction of sound to motion pictures.

June 1, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

Granted, early sound technology was primitive, with directors, actors and crew members adapting on the fly to the demands of a new medium that required absolute silence on film sets and cumbersome microphones that severely limited the movements of actors. Screenwriters, accustomed to writing brief intertitles in silent films, now had to write expository dialogue, and actors had to rely less on exaggerated facial expressions and body movements and more on the spoken word. And it helped if you didn’t have a speech impediment or heavy accent.

Writing for “The Reporter at Large” column (titled “The Unspeakables”), Hollywood correspondent Jean-Jacques lamented that the talkies were “here to stay”…

BARNLIKE STAGES were erected on both coasts to produce early silent films. Clockwise, from top left, Fox’s World Paragon Studios in Ft. Lee, NJ, circa 1917; interior of the studio; several films in production, side-by-side, at Edison’s Bronx studio, circa 1915; Fox studios in Los Angeles, 1920s. (moviemice.com/Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques recalled the professions that would now be lost to the talkies, including the “mood musicians” who played their instruments on silent film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors…

IN THE MOOD…During the silent era “mood musicians” were hired to play their instruments on film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors. (Pinterest)
THE SILENCE of SOUND…In the early days of the talkies the entire set had to be silent, and special care had to be taken to ensure loud cameras were housed in soundproof boxes such as those pictured above. Instead of the introduction of sound expanding the capabilities of filmmaking, it was often limited by the bulky gear used to capture that sound. Therefore, many films consisted of “stage” musical numbers that were static shots. (Caption and image at left courtesy Colorado College. Image at right from cinecollage.net)

The writer also noted the challenges that faced “the old scenario writer…hemmed in by a multitude of new rivals…

WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK…Dorothy Arzner (left) poses with “It Girl” Clara Bow in a publicity shot for The Wild Party, Bow’s first talking picture. Bow is famously quoted as saying (in 1930) “I hate talkies. They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action.” Arzner tried to remedy that problem: she is credited with inventing the boom mike, which allowed for greater movement by the actor. (Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Jacques recounted the frustrations experienced by one old-time actor dealing with the limitations of bulky sound equipment…

This actor was not alone, A number of major silent film stars including Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. Motion Picture Classic magazine (September 1930) quoted Bow as saying, “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.” According to the article, a visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN…A number of major silent film stars including (from left) Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. (Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques signed off his New Yorker piece with the hope that someday pictures and sound would be combined into a worthy new art form…

Perhaps Jean-Jacques had to look no further than Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre to find that first glimmer of hope, for it was there that the Marx Brothers were tearing up the screen in their first talking picture, The Cocoanuts, reviewed in the magazine’s “The Current Cinema” column…

If the New Yorker was looking for snappy dialogue in motion pictures, there was plenty of it in The Cocoanuts, including this snippet between Groucho Marx, playing Mr. Hammer—an unscrupulous manager of a bankrupt Florida hotel—and wealthy hotel guest Mrs. Potter, played by Margaret Dumont…

Hammer: Do you know that property values have increased since 1929 one thousand per cent? Do you know that this is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker? Do you know that Florida is the show spot of America and Cocoanut Manor the black spot of Florida?

Mrs. Potter:  You told me that yesterday.

Hammer: I know but I left out a comma.

Or this gem…

Hammer, to Mrs. PotterJust think – tonight, tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds I’ll be sneaking around you. I’ll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now – you and the moon. Wear a neck-tie so I’ll know you.

SHOW ‘EM HOW IT’S DONE…Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in their first sound movie, The Cocoanuts, 1929. (vitaphonedreamer.wordpress.com)
BAMBOOZLER… Mrs Potter (Margaret Dumont), inspects Mr Hammer’s (Groucho Marx) Florida property “deals” in The Cocoanuts. (British Film Institute)

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For Sentimental Reasons

Additional evidence that the New Yorker was not always ready to embrace change came from its many articles, particularly in “The Talk of the Town,” that seemed to favor the preservation of buildings that defined the character of certain neighborhoods, including the early 19th century rowhouses that lined Washington Square North…

THEN AND NOW…At left, photo dated 1921 of Washington Square, north side of square looking east from 5th Avenue. Corner house in foreground is No. 12. The far end at right shows Nos. 3, 2, 1. At right, roughly the same block today. (Museum of the City of New York/1homedesigns.com)

At left, photo dated 1936 (by Berenice Abbott) of Washington Square North, nos. 21-25, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street. At right, nos. 19-26 today. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia Commons)

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The Wittier Kaufman

Editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman worked and played within the orbit of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table, but was not a regular member like her husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman. But Beatrice Kaufman didn’t the need the Algonquin to display her wit. Indeed, according to Michael Galchinsky (writing for the Jewish Women’s Archive), she was regarded as one of the wittiest women in New York in the 1930s and 40s. Here is an example of her work in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker:

THE WITTIEST OF THEM ALL…Editor, writer and playwright Beatrice Kaufman (left, in undated photo). At right, comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice and her husband, Broadway playwright/producer George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s. (thepurplediaries.com/spartacus-educational.com)

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Rags to Riches

The life of Fred F. French was something out of dime novel; born in dire poverty, he became a self-made real estate tycoon and a schrewd builder of some of Manhattan’s biggest land developments. French was the subject of a profile written by Robert M. Coates, an art critic who would be a longtime contributor to New Yorker. An excerpt, with illustration by Al Frueh:

MONUMENTS TO FRED…Fred French’s New York City buildings included, clockwise from left, the 38-story Fred F. French Building (1927) at 45th Street and 551 Fifth Avenue (designated a National Landmark); Knickerbocker Village (1934) on the Lower East Side; and the East Side’s Tudor City apartment complex (1927-1932). (Pinterest/thelodownny.com/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Let’s start with a couple of lovely color ads, which appeared with greater frequency in the magazine…here we have a snatch of the good life, courtesy General Electric…

…and perhaps a less homespun image of the good life, from the makers of Dodge boats…

…and here we have another example of the modern world rushing in, this time in the form of instant coffee crystals…

…and another taste of the modern from Harper’s Bazar magazine, featuring an illustration by French artist and illustrator Charles Martin

…and just for kicks, another example of Martin’s work from an earlier time…

Image from Sports et Divertissements by Charles Martin, 1914. (Wikipedia)

…and here is a back page ad for costume bag maker Whiting & Davis, with an endorsement by Joan Crawford, who was already a pretty big star by 1929. My guess is that Whiting & Davis paid more for the endorsement than they did for the ad…I included a photo of Crawford (at left) from 1929 just to show that she did have a lighter side…

…this ad from the makers of Flit insecticide begs the question: was our beloved Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) a racist? Well…

…although Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of the New Deal, during World War II he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, as is evident from this unfortunate 1942 cartoon…

Dr. Seuss 1942 cartoon with the caption ‘Waiting for the Signal from Home’ (slideshare.net)

…later in life Geisel became a staunch environmentalist and anti-war protestor. In 1961 he wrote The Sneetches, which promoted racial equality. Perhaps Geisel lived to regret those earlier drawings…

…and on to our illustrators and cartoonists, beginning with this sketch by Garrett Price, apparently inspired from a recent trip to France (it was featured along with several other small sketches in the “Profile” section)…

Barbara Shermund had some fun with a double entendre…

…and popped up again with this look at the stock market…

C.W. Anderson found humor in the strange shapes of modernist furniture…

Otto Soglow commented on the glitzy hype of Broadway…

…and cartoonist/humorist Don Herold made his comics debut in the New Yorker with this entry…

…and finally, a bonus image I came across while researching the advent of sound motion pictures. The photo, from the silent era, shows two cameramen shooting a parade, possibly for a newsreel. Note how their only support consists of two wooden planks wedged into an open window…

(moviemice.com)

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far…

Let Them Eat Cake

The re-opening of New York’s Central Park Casino in 1929 was in many ways the city’s last big party before the economy came crashing down, along with the exhuberance and frivolity of the Jazz Age.

May 25, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The Casino itself wasn’t new–it opened in 1864 as the Ladies’ Refreshment Salon (sometimes spelled “saloon”), a two-room stone cottage designed by Calvert Vaux. As Susannah Broyles writes in her excellent blog post for the Museum of the City of New York, the Victorian cottage was a place where “unaccompanied ladies could relax during their excursions around the park and enjoy refreshments at decent prices, free of any threat to their propriety.”

Central Park’s Ladies’ Refreshment Saloon opened in 1864. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

Broyles writes that by the 1880s the salon had morphed into a far pricier destination, a restaurant called The Casino, open to both sexes. With the rare attraction of outdoor seating, “it was the place to see and be seen.”

By the 1920s the restaurant had grown a bit shabby. Then along came the city’s flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker (1881-1946), who saw the potential of the property as a place where he could hob-nob with wealthy and fashionable New Yorkers and openly flaunt Prohibition laws. There were others, however, who found the idea of an exclusive playground for the rich in a public park distasteful. The New Yorker observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” opening of “The Talk of the Town”…

…the “Schuyler L. Parsons” referred to above was a tireless host, prominent decorator, and a society A-lister. He is pictured here (circa 1930) with two of his closest friends, actor Charlie Chaplin and the actress, singer and dancer Gertrude Lawrence

(Tyler Hughes Collections)

The Central Park Casino reopened its doors on June 4, 1929 at an invitation-only event. The following day it would open to the public, but as New York’s newest and most expensive restaurant it would remain closed to all but the wealthiest. As the New Yorker observed, the city was, after all, a plutarchy, and the populace passing by the Casino would at least be allowed “to glimpse the decadent class in the act of eating a six-dollar dinner” (nearly $90 today).

This formal announcement of the opening appeared in the May 6, 1929 issue of the New Yorker, including the time of the event—I suppose for the benefit of the 600 who actually had an invitation, or perhaps to tantalize those without such credentials…

The Casino was a playground for the rich by design, conceived in the image of the flamboyant Mayor Walker—himself a product of the Tammany Hall political machine—and executed by hotelier Sidney Solomon, who obtained the building’s lease via some Tammany-style subterfuge. Solomon hired architect and theatrical set designer Joseph Urban to transform the Casino into a glittering showpiece of Jazz Age nightlife.

Clockwise, from top left, the Central Park Casino; architect Joseph Urban; his Casino ballroom design with black-mirrored ceiling; the Casino lobby. (acontinuouslean.com/Columbia University/centralpark.com/drivingfordeco.com)

The New Yorker continued its observations on the Casino in another “Talk of the Town” piece titled “Historical Note,” attributing the inspiration for the Casino not to Walker or Solomon, but to socialite Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr…

AN EYE FOR THE FINER THINGS…The wealthy socialite A.J. Biddle (pictured here with his first wife, Mary Lillian Duke, in 1924) trained his eye on the Central Park Casino while on the rooftop of the St. Regis Hotel pondering another Joseph Urban project. (voxsartoria.com)
PARTY BOY…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and his nighttime playground, the Central Park Casino, show here on September 10, 1935. (Britannica/ New York City Department of Parks & Recreation)

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, the party didn’t last forever. After the October 1929 stock market crash, the sight of rich folks stuffing their faces and drinking fine wines in a public park looked even more unseemly. Soon the Casino found itself in the crosshairs of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who detested Mayor Walker.

As for Walker himself, a growing financial scandal prompted him to resign from office on Sept. 1, 1932. He promptly fled to Europe with his mistress, Ziegfeld girl Betty Compton, and stayed overseas until the threat of criminal prosecution had passed. For Moses, it wasn’t satisfaction enough to see Walker driven from office. In 1936, despite protests from preservationists, Moses had Urban’s lovely restaurant demolished. It was replaced by a children’s playground the following year.

THE PARTY’S OVER…Crews dismantling the Central Park Casino in 1936. In 1937, the Rumsey Playground was built on the site of the Casino, and in the 1980’s the site was razed again and converted into Rumsey Playfield, where the city’s SummerStage events are now held. (Museum of the City of New York/centralpark.com)

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A Drinking Life

As the Jazz Age was winding down, one of its greatest chroniclers began a brief relationship with the New Yorker. In the March 12, 2017 issue of the magazine, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman wrote “There’s a doomed, romantic quality to the relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and The New Yorker; they were perfect for each other but never quite got together.” In total, Fitzgerald published just two poems and three humorous shorts for the magazine, beginning with this piece in the May 25, 1929 issue:

Fitzgerald’s last contribution to the New Yorker would appear in the Aug. 21, 1937 issue (“A Book of One’s Own”). Following the author’s death in 1940 the magazine would feature various articles on his life and work, and in 2017—77 years after Fitzgerald’s death—the New Yorker would publish a long lost short story, “The IOU.” A fitting title for an author who sadly did not get his due while he was alive.

IOU…F. Scott Fitzgerald with daughter “Scottie” and wife Zelda, circa 1927. (The Telegraph)

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One of the Gang

Among the Jazz Age artists and writers who orbited around the Algonquin Round Table (and the Central Park Casino) and chummed with the writers of the New Yorker was musician and composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) who was profiled in the May 25 issue by his friend and longtime New Yorker writer Samuel N. Behrman. The opening paragraph (with caricature by Al Frueh):

IN THE SAME ORBIT…Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (left), was an American playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and longtime writer for The New Yorker. From the late 1920s through the 1940s, he was considered one of Broadway’s leading authors of “high comedy,”His son is the composer David Behrman. At right, George Gershwin at the piano, 1929. (prabook.com/IMDB)

In the profile, Behrman observed that although Gershwin expressed a desire for privacy, he was quite capable of dashing off major works in practically any setting:

TOOTING HIS OWN HORN…Composer George Gershwin and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra percussionist James Rosenberg holding four taxi horns used in the orchestra’s performance of An American in Paris, on Feb. 28, 1929. (Photo courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts)

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Scratching the Surface

Emily Hahn (1905-1997) was a prolific journalist and author who contributed at least 200 poems, articles and works of fiction to the New Yorker over an astonishing 68-year span—from 1928 to 1996. As the title suggests, I am merely scratching surface, and will devote a post to her in the near future. Here is her contribution to the May 25, 1929 issue:

PROLIFIC…A 1937 portrait of Emily Hahn taken in Shanghai, China, by Sir Victor Sassoon. The author of 54 books, Hahn is credited with playing a significant role in opening up Asia and Africa to the West through her many novels. (DeGolyer Library, SMU)

Another frequent contributor to the New Yorker was screenwriter John Ogden Whedon (1905-1991), who offered up mostly shorts from 1928 to 1938. He is best known as a television writer for such shows as The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Leave It to Beaver. Whedon and his wife, Louise Carroll Angell, were parents and grandparents to a number of screenwriters, including grandson Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and writer/director of The Avengers (2012) and its sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). An excerpt of grandpa’s writing from the May 25 issue:

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From Our Advertisers

In a recent post (Waldorf’s Salad Days) I noted an ad from Lily of France that proclaimed the straight flapper figure was out, and it was now the “season of curves.” This ad from B. Altman begs to differ…

…one way to keep that straight figure was to pull on a girdle, which I’m sure felt great while one played tennis…

…our latest Lucky Strike endorser is…Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. Never heard of her? Well, “Mrs. Jerome” was actually a one Blanche Pierce (1872-1950) of Rochester, NY. Her second husband, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (the great-grandnephew of Emperor Napoleon) was something of a wastrel, having inherited a fortune and never worked at a job or profession. Blanche herself was known as a social climber…

THEY EXISTED…Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte (pictured here circa 1915) was the great-grandnephew of Emperor Napoleon and a man of extreme leisure. His wife, Blanche Pierce Bonaparte (right, in a photo circa 1925), was known as a dog lover, a passion that indirectly led to her second husband’s demise. Jerome died while walking his wife’s dog in Central Park—he apparently stumbled over the dog’s leash and broke his neck. (Library of Congress)

…speaking of European nobility, here is another sad endorsement from a French noble touting the wonders of Clicquot Club ginger ale to Prohibition-strapped Americans…

…and then we have this weird “Annie Laurie” analogy used by Chrysler to sell its line of automobiles…

…the manufacturers of Studebaker, on the other hand, opted for a more direct approach, equating its automobiles with the speed and modernity of airplane flight…note how in both ads the cars are pictured with the windshields folded down to emphasize sleekness…

…on to the cartoons: we begin with this two-page entry by Rea Irvin, which makes very little sense…I get the part where the rich old man (stalked by his fearsome wife) finds a mistress (and a new wife) through the process of “checking his horse,” but the whole mermaid thing is lost on me…please click to enlarge—I’d love to have this one explained…

Carl Rose had some fun with newfangled sound effects in the dawning age of the talkies…

Peter Arno sketched up the cynicism of one New York dowager…

Perry Barlow captured two women who might have been driving home from an auction at the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel…

…and finally, a lovely illustration by Helen Hokinson of children at play…

Next Time: The Unspeakables…

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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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)

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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….

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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…

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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)

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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…

 

 

Dorothy Parker Goes to the Movies

Dorothy Parker turned her jaded eye to the latest big thing — talking pictures — and in the Sept. 1, 1928 issue she joined her New Yorker colleagues in a collective yawn at the technology that was dramatically transforming cinema.

Sept. 1, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In a feature titled “Out of the Silence,” Parker mused about the changes facing former silent stars…

…and seemed unconvinced that the talking pictures, at least to date, were any real improvement over the silents, including a performance by her Algonquin Round Table pal and New Yorker colleague Robert Benchley, who seemed but a talking simulacrum:

HIS SCREEN VERSION…Robert Benchley delivers his comedy sketch The Treasurer’s Report in a short 1928 Movietone film. Benchley portrayed a nervous assistant treasurer struggling to present an organization’s yearly report. (YouTube screen shot)

Parker attended a matinee at a jam-packed Warner Theatre, where folks paid a dollar apiece for standing room only to witness a series of shorts and a feature-length film, all presented with sound:


One of the shorts featured a performance by female impersonator George Francis Peduzzi, known professionally as Karyl Norman, “The Creole Fashion Plate,” followed by a performance from violinist Albert Spaulding:

WHAT A DRAG…Dorothy Parker was underwhelmed by Karyl Norman’s performance in a Vitaphone short. He is pictured here in a 1924 publicity photo, dressed as “The Creole Fashion Plate.” (queermusicheritage.com)

What Parker was subjecting herself to was the Vitaphone Varieties, described by North Carolina Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes as “the last gasps of vaudeville.”

Boyes writes that many vaudevillians stepped off the stage to immortalize their acts on film in the early days of the talkies. They were produced in Brooklyn between 1927 and 1929 using the Vitaphone method (large recorded discs synchronized with the film) “at a time when the major studios hoped that the talkies were just a passing fad.” She notes that “talkies would eventually put this style of theater completely out of business, and Vitaphone shorts literally became the place where Vaudeville went to die. Many of the people in these short films were obscure at the time, and they are doubly obscure now.”

As for the main feature, The Terror, the only terror Parker felt was the fear of being bored to death:

SOUND AND FURY, SIGNIFYING NOTHING…Dorothy Parker found The Terror to be unexciting, its sound effects a “racket.” But for the record, it was the first all-talking horror film. (IMDB)

Parker concluded that “talking pictures are marvels of invention,” but “a bad show is a bad show, synchronize it how you will.”

Coming of Age in Samoa

Social critic and humorist Baird Leonard took the honors as book reviewer for the Sept. 1 issue, offering a brief, humorous endorsement of Margaret Mead’s landmark Coming of Age in Samoa, in which the famed anthropologist explored the link between culture and psychosexual development among the island’s adolescents. Leonard found much to like about the book, and particularly Mead’s observations on the separation of youth from adult activities in Samoan culture (it would enhance his bridge-playing enjoyment):

GOING NATIVE…Margaret Mead sitting between two Samoan girls, ca. 1926. (Library of Congress).

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Writer Cameron Rogers profiled American sculptor Paul Manship, who was an important contributor to Art Deco style, and is perhaps best known for his iconic Prometheus sculpture at Rockefeller Center in New York. Rogers made these closing observations about Manship, noting that the artist’s success netted him about $60,000 a year — close to $850,000 today (These days, someone like showman/artist Jeff Koons, who makes giant shiny balloon animal sculptures, among other things, has a net worth of at least $100 million).

PROMETHEUS, gilded cast bronze by Paul Manship, 1934, at Rockefeller Center. (Encyclopedia Britannica)

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From Our Advertisers

I find it interesting when one magazine advertises in another, especially when an older magazine like the Outlook (founded in 1893) advertises in an upstart like the New Yorker. But then again, the publishers of the Outlook were looking to breathe new life into their stodgy journal, and what better way than to announce that their “conservative girl” was now a modern, grown-up woman with a new Jazz Age look and an attitude to match. And it was no coincidence that they hired the New Yorker’s Rea Irvin to illustrate their point.

OUTLOOK magazine was first published as The Christian Union in 1870, changing its name to Outlook in 1893 when it shifted its focus from religious subjects to social and political issues. The magazine folded in 1935. (Pinterest)

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Our cartoon is by Peter Arno, who continued to explore the lighter moments of New York night life…

Next Time: Mussolini’s Romance Novel…

 

A Familiar Ring

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

July 7, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Time: 100 Percent Talker…

Wits of the Round Table

Two big voices from the famed Algonquin Round Table were prominently featured in the Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, 1927 issues of the New Yorker–journalist and champion of the underdog Heywood Broun wrote his own “Profile” under the title, “The Rabbit That Bit the Bulldog,” and Dorothy Parker served up biting satire in “Arrangement in Black and White,” a clever exposé of racism among the fashionably “open-minded” upper classes.

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October 1, 1927 cover by Gardner Rea.

The Rabbit That Bit the Bulldog

Hiding under the signature “R.A.”, Heywood Broun was merciless as his own profiler, describing himself as a coward, hypochondriac, and a slob (there is truth to the latter, however, as friends often likened him to “an unmade bed”).

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Broun cut his teeth in journalism as a sportswriter and war correspondent. In 1921 he went to work for the New York World, where he penned his popular syndicated column “It Seems to Me.” Broun’s New Yorker “Profile” was written after he was fired from the World following a disagreement with his editor over his critical commentary on the sentencing of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Broun would move on to The Nation, where he would write a regular column, “It Seems to Heywood Broun,” that would offer criticism on a number of topics including his former employer, the World.

Heywood Broun (Denver Newspaper Guild)

The New Yorker profile included this caricature by Peter Arno…

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…a portrayal Broun claimed was inaccurate due to his “habitual stoop,” among other faults…

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…and he mused about his future with the Nation, and how that august publication would square with his various foibles…

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…and as for his personal appearance and habits, Broun weighed in thusly…

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Broun married social activist Ruth Hale in 1917. A son born the following year, Heywood Hale Broun, would have a long and successful career as an author, sportswriter, commentator and actor.

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The Long Count

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the famous Chicago rematch between heavyweight boxers Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, which Tunney won after the controversial “long count.” The fight took place under new rules that gave a fallen fighter 10 seconds to rise to his feet, but the count would not begin until his opponent moved to a neutral corner.

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DAZED AND CONFUSED…Referee Dave Barry motions Jack Dempsey to a neutral corner before he begins his count. Tunney got back up and went on to win the fight. (Chicago Tribune archive photo)

Although Tunney dominated the fight, Dempsey unleashed a flurry in the seventh round that knocked Tunney to the canvas–it was the first time in Tunney’s career that he’d been knocked down. Instead of going immediately to a neutral corner, Dempsey just stood and observed his opponent for several seconds until finally retreating. Those extra seconds proved just enough time to allow Tunney to return to his feet and eventually win the bout. To one observer quoted in “The Talk of Town,” those extra seconds really dragged…

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From the Ad Department

We feature this advertisement for Faultless Nobelt Pajamas. Apparently these special PJs had some sort of newfangled rubber elastic band…

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…an this cartoon from the Oct. 1 issue featured Helen Hokinson’s ditsy, plump society women at New York’s Fashion Week…

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Dorothy Takes On the Snobs

In the Oct. 8 issue, our other Round Table wit, Dorothy Parker, took aim at the less savory aspects of society women in her short fiction piece, “Arrangement in Black and White.”

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October 8, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

Parker began her piece by introducing us to a woman who enters a party wearing a wreath of “pink velvet poppies” in her golden hair. In short order she asks the party’s host to “pretty please” introduce her to the party’s guest of honor, an African American singer named Walter Williams.

The woman with the pink velvet poppies goes on to tell her host that she came to the party alone because her husband, Burton, preferred not to socialize with “colored people”–but she however was “simply crazy” about some of them. “They’re just like children–just as easy-going, and always singing and laughing and everything.” Before she met the singer she observed to the host:

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The woman with the pink velvet poppies meets the singer Walter Williams, as illustrated by Peter Arno.

Then the woman with the pink velvet poppies meets Walter Williams:

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She continues to patronize the guest of honor, then notices a stage actress at the party:

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Finally, the host guides the woman with the pink velvet poppies away from Walter Williams…

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BITING WIT…Dorothy Parker in the 1920s.

We will see more of Dorothy Parker in issues to come as she continues to take aim at the hollow, pretentious, hypocritical, self-absorbed snobs of the Jazz Age and beyond.

Baseball’s Lament

The Oct. 1 and 8 issues covered yacht racing, polo, tennis, golf and college football, but still no baseball. The 1927 New York Yankees would be one of the greatest teams of all time, but as the World Series commenced all we got from the New Yorker was a personality profile of Yankees manager Miller Huggins in the Oct. 8 issue (with a drawing by Reginald Marsh)…screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-1-24-05-pm

…and this advertisement for “Sport Glasses” for those attending the World Series…

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Perhaps the New Yorker had no one on staff who could competently write about baseball. The strangest reference to the game was this article about polo, but for some reason it was illustrated with baseball images. Perhaps the editors felt sheepish about their lack of baseball coverage, and offered these illustrations as a token acknowledgement…

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At any rate, we end with this cartoon by Julien de Miskey, who like his colleagues explored the comic richness of wealthy old men paired with their young mistresses…

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Next Time: The Ephemeral City…

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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.

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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.

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Alexander Woollcott and Harold Ross (Britannica; Jane Grant Collection, University of Oregon)

Ralph Barton’s contribution to the parody issue…

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(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:

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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:

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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:

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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…

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…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…

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Next Time: The Cotton Club & Other Distractions…

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