While You Were Away

During the Roaring Twenties New Yorkers took a wrecking ball to much of their past, and at a breathtaking pace that left many residents little time to ponder what was lost.

March 30, 1929 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes succinctly summed up this spirit of the times in a tongue-in-cheek “reminiscence” of the “old” New York—that is, how the city appeared the previous fall before he left to spend the winter in Bermuda:

NOW WHERE WILL I GET A WALDORF SALAD? Writer Gilbert Seldes (top left) ticked off some of the many changes to his city while he was away for the winter, including (clockwise, from top right), the murder of racketeer Arnold Rothstein; the planned demolition of the Waldorf Astoria to make room for the Empire State Building (photo of the partially demolished hotel); and perhaps the first song to be overplayed on the radio ad nauseumAl Jolson’s “Sonny Boy.” (Wikipedia, Daily News, New York Public Library, musicals101.com)

A member of the intellectual elite but also a strong advocate for cultural democracy, Seldes began writing for the New Yorker in late 1925 and would be a frequent contributor through 1936. In 1937 he would join CBS as its first director of television programs, and would also become one of television’s first critics thanks to his 1937 Atlantic Monthly article, “The ‘Errors’ of Television.” (Note: There were only 50 experimental TV sets in the New York area in 1937, and the first commercially available sets weren’t sold until 1939). In 1958—when there would be 42 million U.S. households with a television—Seldes would serve as the host of NBC’s The Subject is Jazz.

THE SUBJECT IS JAZZ host Gilbert Seldes in 1958 visiting with the show’s producer, George Norford; at right, Seldes interviewing Duke Ellington. (Getty Images)

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Peggy Bacon Did It All

Another early contributor to the New Yorker was Peggy Bacon, who displayed her sharp wit in her nearly 50 articles and poems for the magazine from 1926 to 1950. But Bacon was also well-known for displaying her talent and wit in the many paintings and illustrations she created throughout her long career. The New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton sang her praises in the March 30, 1929 issue after visiting her show at the Weyhe Gallery.

A FEW IDEAS was the title of this 1927 drypoint work featured in Peggy Bacon’s Weyhe Gallery show. At right, Bacon, circa 1920s. (artnet.com/wikipedia)
A sampling of Peggy Bacon drypoint works from the 1920s, clockwise, from top: Frenzied Effort, 1925; Vanity, 1929; Penguin Island, 1926. (Brooklyn Museum/Artnet/1stdibs.com)

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The March 30 profile featured aviation innovator Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, who in 1922 designed the first enclosed-cabin monoplane in the U.S. Perhaps even more significant, his design in 1913 of a plane with a propeller in front, a wing in the middle and tail at the end set the standard for all aircraft built since. (Before 1913 many planes were propelled from the rear, with the “tail” projected in front of the craft). The profile writer, William Weimer (with art by Hugo Gellert) admired Bellanca’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty du Pont family:

Bellanca founded the Roos-Bellanca Aircraft Company in Omaha in 1927, and was featured on the cover of Time. In 1929 he created the Delaware-based Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of America in a financial partnership with the du Ponts.

AVIATION PIONEER Giuseppe Mario Bellanca (center) at the new Bellanca Airfield in New Castle, Delaware, 1928. Bellanca’s planes would establish numerous records for altitude, endurance, and speed. (Delaware Public Archives)

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Showing Some Restraint

In his “Sky Line” column, the New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) praised an award-winning 1928 apartment at 3 East 84th Street for its contemporary charm and “fine restraint.” Designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, the 9-story building was commissioned by Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News. The design would be influential in Hood’s much more ambitious projects two years later—the Daily News Building (1930) and Rockefeller Center (1931).


The Raymond Hood– and John Mead Howells-designed 3 East 84th Street. Top right, the front entrance; and bottom right, ceiling’s silver leaf squares. (Susan DeMark–mindfulwalker.com)

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Advertisers in the March 30 issue offered various garments for the gentleman, including this sports-country ensemble at left from Finchley and a custom lounging robe from Macy’s…

…and for fashionable, amusingly mischievous woman there was the new “Scalawag” hat by Knox (ad illustrated by the great Carl Erickson)

…Blue Moon’s blonde fairy girl was one of the Jazz Age’s most recognizable labels…here she is matched with an Art Deco-inspired spectrum of stocking colors…

…Ligget & Myers Tobacco Company joined the ranks of sophisticated advertisers who touted a product—in this case Fatima cigarettes—without actually showing the product…

…on the other hand, American Tobacco Company, the makers of Lucky Strike, made doubly sure you wouldn’t forget that bright red bullseye, or Rosalie Adele Nelson, “The Original Lucky Poster Girl”…

Nelson’s image for Lucky Strike was almost as ubiquitous as the fairy in the Blue Moon ads. Apparently she was also a member the Nelson family of circus acrobats and performed her own signature act with baby elephants:

Rosalie Adele Nelson with her baby elephant act, 1929 (eBay)

Philip Morris took an entirely different (and unusual) approach to selling its relatively new brand of Marlboro cigarettes by touting the achievements of Gretchen Colnik, winner of the “1928 Marlboro Contest for Distinguished Handwriting….”

Like Rosalie Adele Nelson, Gretchen Colnik would go on to minor fame of her own. She was managing editor of the Great Neck, NY, newspaper before returning to her hometown—Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From 1952 to 1966 Gretchen was the Martha Stewart of Milwaukee, hosting a TV show that provided advice on interior design, food and crafts. “The Gretchen Colnik Show” was sponsored by Mrs. Karl’s Bread.

Our cartoon is by Leonard Dove, who looks in on an architect at work:

The Cruelest Month

The film reviews for the April 6, 1929 issue found the New Yorker once again at odds with Hollywood and favoring cinematic products from the Old World.

April 6, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

In the case it was a French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which even today is regarded as a cinematic landmark.

A LOT AT STAKE…American poster for The Passion of Joan of Arc; at right, Maria Falconetti in the title role. (Wikipedia/Film Forum)

The New Yorker review praised the film as “one of the few of the year which merit serious attention”…

On the other hand, there were the latest products from Hollywood, which stood on the other side of a “vast abyss” from the French film:

HO HUM FOR HOLLYWOOD…At left, Mary Dugan (Norma Shearer) with her conniving lawyer, Edward West (Lewis Stone) in The Trial of Mary Dugan; Lewis Stone was a apparently a busy man in the late 1920s—here he is again (center image), this time portraying John Sterling, a tea plantation investor lacking the mojo to keep up with his much younger wife, Lillie (Greta Garbo) in Wild Orchids; and at right, Janet Gaynor as a little Dutch girl in Christina, a film now considered lost. Click image to enlarge (normashearer.com/pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

The April 6 issue found Charlie Chaplin getting in on the action of Old Gold cigarette endorsements…

…while Curtiss Flying Service thought it might interest some of the more well-heeled New Yorker readers in the purchase of an airplane…

…a couple weeks later, in the April 20 issue, the New Yorker would make this observation about the ad in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and finally, our cartoon by R. Van Buren, looking in on yet another sugar daddy and his much younger companion on a night out…

Next Time: Generation of Vipers…

That Moderne Feeling

A defining moment for Art Deco design in America occurred at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during a 1929 exhibition that showcased everything from household furnishings to garden design.

March 9, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt. Between 1927 and 1933, Haupt would illustrate 45 covers for the New Yorker.

Before we delve into the Met’s exhibition, The Architect and the Industrial Arts, a quick note about the New Yorker’s Theodore Haupt-illustrated cover, which referenced the annual Six-Day Cycling Race that was taking place at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome. The event, which began at the old Madison Square Garden in 1891 and lasted until 1950, featured a beer garden (after Prohibition) in the center of the oval and drew such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck and Peggy Joyce. It was said that Crosby even paid the hospital bills of riders who fell during the race.

THIS MIGHT TAKE AWHILE…The Six-Day Cycling Race at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome, 1932. (Victoria & Albert Museum)

The March 9 issue was lively with another contribution from Groucho Marx (“Press Agents I Have Known”) and an Alexander Woollcott-penned profile of playwright and screenwriter Charles Gordon MacArthur (husband of stage actress Helen Hayes and father of James “Book ’em Danno” MacArthur).

But as the blog title suggests, it was also filled with articles and ads that told of a city embracing all things new and modern, including a piece by architecture critic George S. Chappell on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eleventh Exhibition of Contemporary American Design, titled The Architect and the Industrial Arts. It was curated by the Met’s Richard F. Bach, who organized 15 annual exhibitions of contemporary industrial art at the museum between 1917 and 1940.

The 1929 exhibition of Art Deco works was the biggest yet, inspired by the Art Moderne movement in Europe and particularly the 1925 Paris Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels). The Met exhibition, wrote Chappell, “should not be missed”…

PORTAL TO THE FUTURE…Entrance to The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Joseph Urban. The above exhibition poster (seen mounted on the doorway in the photo) was by W.A. Dwiggins. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Ornaments created by W.A. Diggins for the exhibition catalogue included, from left, “Conservatory,” for a section on  Joseph Urban; ornament on a page devoted to curator Richard F. Bach; “Backyard Garden” for a section on Ely Jacques Kahn; and an ornament that graced the acknowledgements page. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, via paulshawletterdesign.com)
NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S GARDEN…Mosaic semi-circular bench designed by Austin Purves, Jr. was featured in architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s “Backyard Garden” display by at the The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Pencil Points Magazine, January 1929)

Chappell found the exhibit to be “stimulating,” although he hoped designers in the future would “curb cleverness” and focus more on fundamentals:

DINING IN STYLE…A dining room designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen for The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
VISIONARIES…The Cooperating Committee for 1929 The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition were, standing, left to right, architects Raymond Hood, Eugene Schoen and Ely Jacques Kahn. Seated, left to right, architects Ralph T. Walker, John Wellborn Root, Jr. and Eliel Saarinen; ceramist, painter and graphic artist Leon V. Solon; and architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
COZY…Ralph Walker’s “Man’s Study for a Country House” at the The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (architectsandartisans.com)
ALL BUSINESS…Raymond Hood’s “Business Executive’s Office” featured at The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Writing in the February 1929 Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Richard S. Bach posed bold questions for this new age: “What is the tempo of our day? What are the dominant elements of our culture, our activities, our thinking? Is this a speed age or are we sedate? Have we time to be dignified and stately about frills or are we air-minded? Do we wait for months, as once all did, for the silkworm to complete his labors before beginning to make thread from his cocoon…or (do we) make a few bales of vegetable silk out of chemically treated wood fiber between breakfast and lunch as a regular chore of a business week-day? And is this the mechanistic millennium which shrivels the soul and makes mockery of imagination, or are these fabulous industries, these automatic instruments of production, the means of bringing within range of vision the real potentialities of our crowded lives and of interpreting our aspirations and achievements?

Pumping Iron Into the Sky

The architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” when they designed a new Art Deco skyscraper to house the Downtown Athletic Club. Writing in Lost City NewsMary Hohlt cites the architect Rem Koolhaas, who sees the Downtown Athletic Club as “the ideal of a hyper-reality in the burgeoning urban form of hyper-density and congestion.” The Club is “the everything-at-your-fingertips self-improvement incubator for men…It is a place for men to indulge on self-improvement; to better themselves in a place only the constructed, hyper-reality of Manhattan can provide.”

SELF-IMPROVEMENT INCUBATOR…the Downtown Athletic Club by Starrett & van Vleck, 1930. (4.bp.blogspot.com) click to enlarge

Hohlt writes that Koolhaas sees the Downtown Athletic Club as a sterile place: “Towering in the sky, the Club removes men from the rest of the world and allows them a kind of aesthetic improvement that cannot be passed on.” E.B. White took a less jaded view in this “Talk of the Town” segment:

STILL A WINNER…Famous for serving as the site of the annual awarding of the Heisman Trophy, the Downtown Athletic Club closed in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. The club was within a “frozen zone” closed to the public during the long clean-up that followed, and could not withstand the financial impact of such a long closure. It reopened in 2005 as a residential tower. (newyorkitecture.com)

Another New Yorker who saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” was insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, who in 1928-29 erected a brick and terra-cotta Art Deco tower that could park 1,000 cars using an automatic elevator system.

MONUMENT TO THE CAR…The May 1928 issue of Modern Mechanix featured this cutaway illustration of Milton Kent’s high-rise, automated parking garage. (boweryboyshistory.com) click image to enlarge

Once again E.B. White was on hand to render this observation for “Talk”…

HUMAN SCALE…Kent’s fantastic garage still stands at West 61st Street, but today it serves as—you guessed it—an apartment building. (boweryboyshistory.com)

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Death of a Can-Can Dancer

The sad death of Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, was announced in Janet Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” column. Weber was a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and a model for some of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous cabaret paintings. Flanner wrote of La Goulue’s rise to fame…

JUST FOR KICKS… Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, circa 1890, and an 1891 poster by Toulouse-Lautrec advertising the performers La Goulue and “No-Bones” Valentin at the new Paris dance hall Moulin Rouge. (Wikipedia)

…and her sad downfall into a life of poverty among the rag-pickers:

SAD DECLINE…La Goulue, her face freshly powdered, sat on the steps of her small trailer for an unknown postcard photographer in the 1920s. This image is a detail of the original photograph, held at the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.

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From Our Advertisers

An advertisement on page 45 for Mohawk carpets featured two Cockney charwomen admiring the new carpets at the General Motors headquarters:

A corresponding note: Shreve & Lamb’s 1927 General Motors Building was the hub of Columbus Circle’s Automobile Row. A hideous 2012 remodel, which clad the entire structure in reflective glass, has rendered the former landmark unrecognizable:

Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com

Getting back to all things “moderne,” these facing ads on pages 8-9 offered some new looks for spring…

…and in the cartoons, a tongue-in-cheek vision of a modern high-rise by Al Frueh, prompted by the news that Florenz Ziegfeld planned to build a 44-story building in his native Chicago. Thanks to the market crash later in the year, it was never realized.

In drawings sprinkled across pages 24-25, Helen Hokinson examined various approaches to tax season, including these two examples…

…and finally, Peter Arno caught a theatre performer with his pants down…

Next Time: Babbitt Babble…

 

 

 

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

ENJOYING SOME DOWN TIME…The boxer Gene Tunney, left, and the writer George Bernard Shaw on a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (Associated Press)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…

 

 

The Enchanting Modernist

If you’ve been following the cover credits of the 113 issues I have featured so far, you’ll notice that many of the covers were illustrated by Ilonka Karasz, including the cover of the April 16, 1927 issue featured in this post.

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April 16, 1927 cover by Ilonka Karasz. She would design 186 covers for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1973.

During her long and varied career Karasz would design 186 covers for the New Yorker. A native of Hungary, she moved to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Greenwich Village, where she quickly rose to become a prominent practitioner of modern design and the decorative arts.

She created paintings, prints and drawings in her early years before moving on to a variety of machine- and hand-made objects rendered in silver and ceramic. She designed furniture strongly influenced by the European De Stijl movement, and was also a pioneer of modern textile design, even developing textiles for use in airplanes and automobiles.

Beginning in the 1940s Karasz would emerge as one of the country’s leading wallpaper artists. Her younger sister, Mariska Karasz, would also become a noted American fashion designer and textile artist.

The range of Ilonka Karasz’s work is astonishing — from homespun images of rural America to the sleek, hard edges of modern design; from textiles and wallpaper to silver sets and large-scale furniture. Now I will get out of the way so you can see for yourself:

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Ilonka Karasz’s first and last covers for the New Yorker: April 4, 1925 (left) and Oct. 22, 1973.
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Many of Karasz’s covers were scenes of bucolic Americana–small towns, villages and farms. From left to right, covers from Dec. 9, 1950, July 5, 1952, and March 28, 1953.
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Ilonka Karasz, circa 1920s. At right, an illustration from her 1949 book, The Twelve Days of Christmas. (Wikipedia/Harper and Row)
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TEXTILE ARTIST…Karasz’s cover design for the Aug. 19, 1944 New Yorker (left), and an oak leaf-pattern textile in Mohair, 1928 (RISD)
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WALLPAPER…“Wisconsin,” a mid-century wallpaper design by Ilonka Karasz (left), and her “Ducks & Grasses” wallpaper from 1948. (Pinterest)
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Candlestick and small bowl by Karasz from a set designed for Paye & Baker, 1928. (Cooper Hewitt)
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Karasz’s mahogany desk from 1928 (Minneapolis Institute of Arts)

For more on Ilonka Karasz’s amazing career, see the Core77 article, Ilonka Karasz, 20th-Century Design Polymath, by Rebecca Veit.

Next Time: The Castle Builder…

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