Big Fish, Little Fish

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was a fort, a popular entertainment complex, and an immigration depot before the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White transformed it into the New York Aquarium in 1896.

Sept. 26, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Aquarium’s beginnings were modest, but under the direction of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend it became one of lower Manhattan’s biggest attractions. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on its latest acquisitions, including the first display of live piranha (here spelled paranha) in America:

When the Aquarium opened it was marvel of late 19th century technology; its enormous glass tanks and pools — holding more than 300,000 gallons of water — were controlled by an elaborate behind-the-scenes operation that ensured each species had the right kind of water conditions and food to survive, at least for awhile; the Aquarium in its early days, like the Central Park Zoo we visited recently, displayed its creatures as curiosities in decidedly unnatural surroundings…

DE-NATURED…In the New York Aquarium’s early days, fish and other aquatic animals were displayed in glass tanks that lined the out walls as well as in concrete ponds below the expansive trussed ceiling. If this rendering is accurate, then these creatures, especially the whales, had miserable, short lives. (thebattery.org)

…and this is a promotion for the Aquarium you would not see today…

…and here are a few images from the early years…more than 100 years old but still not easy to look at…

DRY-DOCKED…these are images used on postcards to promote the Aquarium — the black and white ones are from 1909, the color image circa 1925-30. Clockwise, from top left, Aquarium worker poking at a manatee with a stick (yeah fella, they’re not happy, and probably dying); a crocodile gets some dinner; image common from yesteryear of a child (or groups of children) sitting on a hapless turtle or tortoise; seals in a pool that contained water but nothing else remotely similar to their natural environment. (nyheritage.org)

…it’s easy for us to pass judgment on the unfortunate actions of our forebears, but to his credit Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, advocated for bans on whaling and constantly worked to improve conditions at the Aquarium…

POPULAR DESTINATION…Whether folks were visiting the Aquarium or jumping on a riverboat or ferry, Battery Park was a place to go in the early 20th century. Top and bottom right, exterior and interior views of the Aquarium. Bottom left, the care and feeding took place behind the outer walls. (wcsarchivesblog.org)

…and Aquarium staff tried their best to keep fish alive during relocation, even using train cars specially designed for the purpose…

(Popular Mechanics 1931)

…once at the Aquarium, teams were ready to put the animals into their proper places…

LONELY NO MORE…Paddlewings, the lonely penguin apparently famous enough to be mentioned in the “Talk” piece, is pictured at right in this 1931 article. (Modern Mechanics, August 1931) click to enlarge.

The end came for the Battery Park aquarium when NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel under Castle Clinton. Moses also thought the aquarium was an eyesore, and had it demolished in 1941…

(thebattery.org)

…preservationists managed to stop the demolition before the walls of Castle Clinton were razed. It is now a national monument…

Castle Clinton, circa 1970s. (Flickr)

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Flying High

Attitudes toward drunken driving — or drunken flying — were very different 89 years ago. Case in point was this “Epitaph” written by Morris Markey marking the passing of Carter Leigh, who carried the air mail while flying under the influence (Reginald Marsh contributed the portrait) …

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Exit, Stage Left

The glitzy showgirl revues continued on Broadway with George White’s Scandals, which featured such headliners as singers Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, and hoofer Ray Bolger. Reviewer Robert Benchley wrote that the show gave him “the feeling of having a good time,” but the same could not be said for Mae West’s The Constant Sinner; Benchley thought the glare of West’s stardom upstaged the play itself:

SIMULACRUM OF A GOOD TIME…Robert Benchley questioned his own enjoyment of George White’s Scandals of 1931; from top, left, program from the show; singers Rudy Vallée and Ethel Merman were popular stars, as were hoofer Ray Bolger (who in 1939 would portray the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and actress Luella Gear (photo from the 1934 play Life Begins at 8:40); chorus girls in costume during a Scandals performance. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions/gershwin.com/Pinterest)
A STAR IS WORN…Benchley thought Mae West upstaged herself in The Constant Sinner. At right, West in a publicity photo with co-star Walter Petrie. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions)

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Play Ball

Sports columnist and occasional New Yorker contributor Ring Lardner enjoyed poking fun at revered institutions including Morris Markey’s “A Reporter at Large” column. Lardner rambled through several subjects but mostly reminisced about great baseball players of the past. Two brief excerpts: 

BEDTIME STORIES…the great American sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner, circa 1930. (Chicago Tribune)

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From Our Advertisers

We have yet another somewhat misleading ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap featuring an older actress who looked deceptively young for her age…

…the Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) was actually 52 years old when this ad appeared, but the photo featured at left was taken in early 1923, when she was 43, so in a sense the ad was somewhat truthful…

Photo of Alla Nazimova taken by Nickolas Muray on Feb. 1, 1923 for Vanity Fair magazine. (Conde Nast)

…Park Avenue would never be the same with the opening of the grand Art Deco Waldorf Astoria, at 47 stories and 625 feet, it was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963…

…nor would the skyline at Central Park West be the same with the addition of Irwin Chanin’s modern “Majestic” and “Century” apartments that featured GE refrigerators sold by Rex Cole, who himself was keen on architecture and design…

…and who hired Raymond Hood to create distinctive refrigerator showrooms in Manhattan, Brookyn and Queens…

Rex Cole Showroom in Flushing, Queens, crowned with a replica of the GE refrigerator’s disintictive “Monitor Top.” With their spare, open plan, the modern showrooms were ahead of their time. (Museum of the City of New York, Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1931)

…on to our cartoonists, we have Chon Day at ringside…

Kemp Starrett eavesdropped on some science-minded shoppers…

Garrett Price gave us a maid’s refreshing perspective on a game of chess…

Helen Hokinson found some serious talk among the younger posh set…

…and we end with another from Garrett Price, and the challenges of renting a room near Times Square…

Next Time: The Coming War…

 

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.

December 8, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

In a post more than two years ago I wrote about Ellin Mackay’s pivotal essay, “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The debutante daughter of a multi-millionaire (who threatened to disinherit her due to her romance with Irving Berlin), Mackay explained that modern women were abandoning social matchmaking in favor of the more egalitarian night club scene. Mackay’s essay provided a huge boost to the struggling New Yorker, which had dipped to less than 3,000 subscribers in August 1925. A more recent post, “A Bird’s Eye View,” noted how a short story by Thyra Samter Winslow opened the door to serious fiction in the magazine.

The Dec. 8, 1928 issue was significant for a cartoon by Carl Rose that appeared on the bottom of page 27:

It remains one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons, and for good reason. In his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda writes that the cartoon (drawn by Rose, with spinach line provided by E.B. White) “was picking up on something in the culture: it was a moment when the air reverberated with the sound of speech.” Yagoda notes that although “the cartoons led the way,” the magazine has always been filled with the sound of voices in “The Talk of the Town.” Naturalistic rendering of speech could also be found under the heading of such features as “Overheard,” which ran from 1927-1929 and included such contributors as the young writer John O’Hara.

Another New Yorker contributor whose work resounded with the sound of speech, Robert Benchley, received some kind words from the magazine on his latest book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield:

DON’T BE SERIOUS…Robert Benchley and his book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield, illustrated by his New Yorker colleague Gluyas Williams. The cover depicted Benchley performing his famous sketch, The Treasurer’s Report. (Goodreads/bio.com)

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Appearing at the Civic Repertory Theatre (founded by actress Eva Le Gallienne in 1926) was Alla Nazimova and Eva herself in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Al Frueh offered this sketch for the theatre review section.

Josephine Hutchinson as Anya, Alla Nazimova as Ranevskaya, and Paul Leyssac as Gayev in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1928. (eBay)

TOUR DE FORCE…Eva Le Gallienne in 1928, photo by Edward Steichen. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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From Our Advertisers

Advertisements from the Dec. 8 issue offered this study in contrasts…a “modern” take on the holidays by Wanamaker’s, featuring the unfortunately titled “Psycho-Gifts for Christmas”…

…versus the staid offerings of Brooks Brothers on the following page…

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On to the Dec. 15 issue, we find the New Yorker enjoying the debut of the Ziegfeld Follies latest revue…

December 15, 1928 — issue number 200 — cover by Julian de Miskey.

…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:

HIT MAKER…Sheet music for the hit “Love Me Or Leave Me” from the Ziegfeld Follies show Whoopee. At right, a still from the 1930 film Whoopee!, with Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor. (carensclassiccinema/thejumpingfrog.com)

And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…

LAVISH, LAVISH!…At left, Ziegfeld Follies performer Jean Ackerman in Whoopee! At right, Ziegfeld performer Ruth Ettig’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me” in Whoopee made it a major hit as well as her signature song. (mote-historie.tumblr.com/Alfred Cheney Johnston)

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On to less glamorous pursuits, the New Yorker also paid a visit to the new “Fish Wing” at the Museum of Natural History, as recounted in “Talk of the Town.” A brief excerpt:

SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES…A visitor admires the mako shark exhibit at the Hall of Fishes in the American Museum of Natural History, 1948 (AMNH)

From Our Advertisers…

…comes this house ad from the New Yorker itself, promoting its first-ever Album:

Chris Wheeler has gathered all of the albums at this site.

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: Happy 1929!