Unfit to Print

The journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the “Reporter at Large” column for the early New Yorker, and for the April 30, 1927 issue took aim at the shoddy coverage of the Ruth Snyder murder trial at the Long Island City Courthouse.

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April 30, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Hecht was appalled by the media’s use of celebrity “experts” to cover the trial, which only served to sensationalize and trivialize the proceedings:

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Ben Hecht

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The Ruth Snyder trial dominated headlines in 1927. A housewife from Queens, Snyder began an affair in 1925 with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. After she persuaded her husband, Albert Snyder, to purchase life insurance, she enlisted Gray’s help to murder her husband. On March 20, 1927 the couple garrotted Albert Snyder (after bludgeoning him with a sash weight) and then staged the murder scene to look like a burglary.

The trial was covered by such figures as former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, movie director D. W. Griffith, author Damon Runyon, popular philosopher Will Durant, and James M. Cain, a crime reporter who went on to write Double Indemnity, which was later made into a major Hollywood movie. Hecht (who would go on to co-write a hugely successful play about newspaper reporters, The Front Page) would have none of this celebrity circus. Some excerpts:

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Ruth Snyder would not be acquitted (or live to write reviews), but instead would go to Sing Sing’s electric chair on Jan. 12, 1928. The 32-year-old Snyder would go to the chair first, followed shortly thereafter by her former lover and accomplice, 35-year-old Henry Judd Gray. The pair had sealed each other’s fate: During the trial, Snyder and Gray had turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert Snyder.

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BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Getty)
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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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NATIONAL SENSATION…The cover of Jan. 13, 1928, issue of the New York Daily News. Although photographs of the execution were not allowed, photographer Tom Howard took this now-famous photo of Snyder at the moment of her execution with the aid of a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. (newseum.org)

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On to a lighter topic…The Sherry-Netherland Hotel has graced the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street since 1927, and when it was built it was the tallest apartment-hotel in New York City.

The building was nearing completion when around 8 pm on April 12, 1927, fire broke out on wood plank scaffolding surrounding the top floors. Firefighters responded only to find they lacked water pressure to fight the blaze.

According to the New York Times (“The Night a Hotel Turned Into a Torch,” Nov. 15, 2012), the fire was watched by hundreds of thousands, and “the windows of the Plaza Hotel across the street were ‘black with people’; every front room was engaged, either by news organizations or for spontaneous parties to watch the fire.”

Planks tumbled to the street for hours, and The Times said one “sailed in a crazy parabola” and crashed against the Savoy-Plaza, also nearly finished; occasionally minor collapses of the scaffolding turned the picturesque top into a “lofty Roman candle.” The crowds on the street could feel the heat on their faces, and the roar and crackle of the fire could be heard for blocks around. The fire burned itself out around midnight.

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the fire, mentioning it only in passing in this “Talk of the Town” item:

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HOT TIME IN THE CITY…In 1927 the Sherry-Netherland caught on fire, creating what The New York Times called “the best show of the season.” The newspaper ran this photo (left), retouching it for contrast (NYT). At right, the hotel as it appears today (Wikipedia)

An interesting side note…at the time of the Sherry-Netherland’s construction, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion was being demolished. Carved limestone panels from the mansion’s porte-cochere as well as ornamental frieze roundels were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland’s lobby.

Hollywood movies continued to disappoint New Yorker critics, including Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings.

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screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-12-59-22-pmFinally, a couple of advertisements from the April 30 issue. It was spring, and time to hit the links…

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…and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno plugged his new book featuring the Whoops Sisters:

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Next time: Those Restless Natives…

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Race Matters

Ben Hecht was a well-known screenwriter, director, producer, playwright (notably, The Front Page) and journalist who contributed a number of comic essays to The New Yorker, including “The Caliph Complex” featured on Page 30 of the Dec. 4, 1926 issue.

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December 4, 1926 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

The magazine consistently rejected “uptown slumming” by New Yorkers seeking exotic thrills in Harlem nightclubs (see my recent post on nightlife correspondent Lois Long’s ho-hum attitude toward the Cotton Club), and Ben Hecht was no exception to this stance.

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A drawing by Julian De Miskey that accompanied Hecht’s article.

In her book Defining New Yorker Humor, Judith Yaross Lee suggests that Hecht’s criticism of “slummers” was not an act of political liberalism, but rather was in line with the magazine’s habit of poking fun at the faddish. Hence the opening lines of Hecht’s essay:

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As I’ve previously noted, for all its sophistication The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in treating blacks as racial “others.”

Lee notes that only a few illustrations in the magazine’s first five years depicted Asians, and the servant class was mostly represented by European types (butlers with a Jeeves-like air, or comely chamber-maids).

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Ben Hecht

When it came to depictions of black and brown faces, Lee notes that the magazine featured “conventional” types of the day–minstrel figures in blackface (see illustration above) or exotic African dancers.

When blacks were depicted as servants, they were rendered as “mammies,” such as in this cartoon by Reginald Marsh in the Dec. 4 issue:

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On the facing page, Peter Arno offered a depiction of a servant more typical for the magazine:

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But lest we feel smug in looking down at our literary forebears, the current discourse in our country seems to indicate that we still have a long way to go on issues of race.

Although there is much to dislike about The New Yorker’s views on race 90 years ago, its criticism of faddish “slumming” did call into question 1920s notions of race. Lee notes that the cartoon by Reginald Marsh (above) is actually a sneer aimed at the white woman for her patronizing comment. She represented the “fashionable Afrophilia” that Hecht and his fellow New Yorker writers detested.

“The Caliph Complex,” according to Lee, “suggested that The New Yorker did not so much ignore Africanist movements as suspect their white supporters.” The following October, Dorothy Parker would pen the essay “Arrangement in Black and White”–the story of a party in honor of a famous gospel singer–that would echo Hecht’s attack on false liberalism.

Next Time: What Price Glory…

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Summertime Blues

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July 18, 1925 cover by H.O. Hofman

“The Talk of the Town” welcomed midsummer by noting the changes in the “new Summer Social Register…A long, slow swing of the same pendulum-like power which shifts the vogue in night clubs and restaurants is the migration to inland resorts…The Hamptons have fallen off, Newport has weakened and of the coasts only New England, boasting ‘the prestige of the Summer White House,’ has held its own.”

It was thought that perhaps financial pressures on waterfront acreage “had added zeros to the 400” and “The fragments of our battered conservatives turn and twist uneasily, seeking readjustment, new barriers (translation: old money responds to the invasion of new money).

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There goes the neighborhood…

This siege on the sanctity of “the 400” – a reference to the number limited to Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s social circle  – included the appearance of “scanty” bathing suits on Southampton beaches:

Screenshot 2015-05-18 09.40.58Corroborative evidence of the storming of the conservative fortresses by Undesirables comes with Southampton’s latest protest against scanty bathing costumes, “usually worn by strangers.”

Just what these costumes were or were not, the Southampton Bathing Corporation did not say, but they ruled that stockings and cape must be worn “while walking down to the water.” This ordinance to apply “especially at week-ends and during tennis week.

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Arrowhead Inn Dining Terrace (Museum of the City of New York)

Beginning with this issue, the “When Nights Are Bold” feature was passed from Charles Baskerville (pen name “Top Hat”) to the newly hired Lois Long (pen name “Lipstick”). In her first column for The New Yorker, Long suggested that for those “who can get out of town at will,” the Arrowhead Inn “up Riverdale way” and high on a bluff above the Hudson, was a popular destination for dining and dancing, even if the dancing crowd left something to be desired:

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Another recommended Hudson River location was the Claremont (but alas, no dancing!), while for those staying in the city, Long recommended the Embassy Club at 695 Fifth Avenue.

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Lois Long at work in the early 1920s (walloffemmes.org)

According to Here At The New Yorker by Brendan Gill, Long chronicled nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing for The New Yorker, and because her readers did not know who she was, she often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in the announcement of her marriage to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

Harold Ross hired Long in the summer of 1925 as part of a group of “saviors” he hoped would help boost his struggling magazine. The group included Arno, Katharine Angell, managing editor Ralph Ingersoll, and cartoonist Helen Hokinson.

Although she was a favorite of Ross’s, the two couldn’t be more different, as historian Joshua Zeitz explains in Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (2006), Long knew just how to embarrass the girl-shy editor, and loved to do it:

(Ross) was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her.

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Julia Lydig Hoyt in 1922 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Talk” also reported that Mrs. (Julia Lydig) Hoyt had “very nearly arrived,” and was capitalizing on her stage career through endorsements for cold creams and articles on social etiquette. “The motion picture industry and stage know her and now she is a designer at highest salary ever paid to an American.”

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Last Call…A rather dour-looking crowd at a New York City bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when Prohibition went into effect. (Library of Congress Archives)

Prohibition continued to dampen the spirits (pun intended) of New Yorkers, particularly during the summer season. The editors noted that of 36 random summer reminiscences submitted to the magazine, eighteen were “direct references to alcoholic concoctions and all but a few theatrical recollections directly suggested indulgence. Then the editors offered their own wistful recollections:

Of course we remember “The Doctor’s cocktails” mixed by the “Commissioner” at the Astor…the highball sign at Forty-second and Broadway…the “Old Virginia Mountain” between the acts under the smile of Old King Cole…the Sunday afternoon absinthe drips at the Lafayette…Champagne at the Claremont on a June night…the Manhattan bar at cocktail time…the Ancient and Honorables in the Buckingham bar….the Navy in mufti at Shanley’s…the horseshoe bar at the Waldorf…the blue dawn of the West Forties…

Of course…but why bring that up again? It’s merely driving us down the street to that place that gave us the card last week and the rumor has just reached us that they are back serving Scotch in teacups, accompanied by a large earthenware teapot filled with soda.

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Left, Delmonico Building at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street (photo from The Brickbuilder, 1899), razed in 1925 and replaced by the building at right (Google Maps screen image)

Also lamented was the loss of renown restaurant Delmonico’s, which had been closed for some time (due mostly to alcohol sales lost to Prohibition; its famous rival across the street, Sherry’s, closed in 1919 for the same reason) but was now yielding to the wrecking ball: “Possibly, Delmonico’s might have been saved as a tradition, but finances and the changes of Fifth Avenue’s complexion forbade…Now we are to see yet another skyscraper, this one on the site where once they dined; where once they danced; across the street from old Sherry’s, long since a bank; orchestraed only by adding machines.”

“The Talk of the Town” concluded with a price list for various bootleg spirits, a feature that would continue through the Prohibition:

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Fresh off his dismantling of those clod-kickers in Chicago, Ben Hecht continued his dyspeptic tirade on the America that lay beyond Gotham, specifically attacking its love of the “Pollyanna twaddle flow” of entertainment from Hollywood:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Ralph Barton, on the other hand, offered of a view of the entire earth, from the vantage point of a Martian observer:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

In “Profiles,” Waldo Frank (writing under the pen-name “Searchlight”) looked askance at the life and work of writer Sinclair Lewis.

Screenshot 2015-05-18 10.35.12Frank offered these observations: “Once upon a time, America created a man-child in her own image…

There’s a strange thing about America. She is passionately in love with herself, and is ashamed of herself…Here was a dilemma, Could not her self be served up to America in such a way that she could love herself—and save her shame? Sinclair Lewis, true American son, was elect to solve it.”

And for those rising young men who did not wish to mix with the unwashed during the summer social season, membership to the Allerton Club Residences was recommended in this back page advertisement:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And yes, the Scopes Monkey Trial is still on the minds of the editors:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And finally, to close out with a beach theme, a two-page illustration from “The Talk of the Town” section, an early work by illustrator Peggy Bacon:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Next time, lots of horseplay:

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Bearish on the Second City

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Ben Hecht (Alamy)

The New Yorker rarely missed an opportunity to take potshots at rival cities such as Philadelphia or Boston, but Chicago was a special target in the magazine’s crosshairs as a notorious Midwestern backwater. The July 4, 1925 issue included a feature titled “Go Chicago,” in which Ben Hecht parodies the city’s pretensions and acts of boosterism. Among Hecht’s observations:

There is no city north of the Mason and Dixon line as active in the cultivation of witch-burning morality, as terrified by ideas, as Rotary Club ridden as Chicago.

I include below the entire piece for the full effect of Ben’s acid-tipped pen:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

A note on Ben Hecht: According to IMDB, he is considered one of Hollywood’s and Broadway’s greatest writers. He won an Oscar for best original story for Underworld (1927) at the first Academy Awards in 1929 and had a hand in the writing of many classic plays and films, including the play The Front Page and the film Notorious. Although he received no credit, Hecht was paid $10,000 by David O. Selznick to perform a “fast doctoring” on the script for Gone With The Wind.

The New Yorker celebrated its first Fourth of July with a busy, two-color cover depicting Coney Island’s famous Luna Park:

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July 4, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

One wonders if the cover art was part of an arrangement for advertising revenue, given that this ad appeared on the back cover of the same issue:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

The inside front cover of the issue featured a full-page ad for the Paramount film, Beggar on Horseback, complete with joke reviews from the “Old Lady in Dubuque” and others including the film’s two writers, Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman, who were also advisory editors of The New Yorker:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Talk of the Town” commented on how modern artists such as Henri Matisse, Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth and Constantin Brancusi were influencing contemporary fashion: “To-day sees the dress houses and even the Fifth Avenue department stores displaying “Cubist fashions”—scarves patterned like composite photographs of all the abstruse countenances in Euclid’s book of open curves, gowns that are marked with subtle diagrams on the variation of the triangle…sports blouses done in bands of gradated color and roundish forms which proclaim their nepotal relation to Cezanne…”

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Dress at left “suggests the fractured and splintered paintings of George Braque, Marcel Duchamp and the early cubist paintings by Picasso. In both art and fashion, Cubism was the modern style” (description and image from Smith College Historic Clothing). At right, a dress from 1924 designed by Paul Poiret (Thierry de Maigret).

“Profiles” featured George Creel, an investigative journalist and politician who headed President Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda arm, the Committee on Public Information, during World War I. The profile’s author, Harvey O’Higgins, wrote that “The Incredible Mr. Creel” was often unpopular with the press as a war-time propagandist, but Creel himself was not a censor but rather a good-humored, honest man with “the ideals of an adolescent.”

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Hans Stengel rendering of George Creel in “Profiles” (New Yorker Digital Archive)

In the “Of All Things” section, Howard Brubaker wryly observed: “Now that Dorothy Perkins has been sentenced to three years in prison we hope that ladies will think twice before killing gentlemen unless they are actually annoying.”

At the time, Perkins was the youngest woman ever charged with murder in New York. She was just 15 when she met 35-year-old Mickey Connors, described by blogger Mark Gribben in The Malefactor’s Register as a “truck driver and spouse-abusing divorced felon.”

Gribben writes that “Connors and Dorothy apparently met in June 1924 when he wed the mother of one of Dorothy’s girlfriends. After that marriage, Connors moved away from Greenwich Village, but kept in contact with Dorothy on the sly.”

According to Gribben, on Valentine’s Day 1925, a rival suitor for Dorothy, 26-year-old Tommy Templeton (who served with Dorothy’s father, Rudolph, in World War I), attended a birthday party for Rudolph at his Greenwich Village house. During the party, the drunken Rudolph apparently asked Dorothy, “Why do you want a bum like Connors when you can have a nice fellow like Tommy?” At some point Dorothy went to her room to fetch a .22-caliber revolver she had stolen from an aunt in Connecticut.

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Dorothy Perkins (The Malefactor’s Register)

What ensued was related by the family minister, Rev. Truman A. Kilborne, in testimony to the court. Rev. Kilborne said the family told him that when Rudolph attempted to take the revolver from his daughter, she resisted and in the struggle the revolver went off. Templeton, who was standing nearby, was shot through the heart.

During her trial, Dorothy claimed that her standoffish treatment of Tommy (and being seen with Conners) was an attempt to make “(Tommy) jealous by flirting with someone else.”

On June 17, 1925, the jury rejected the state’s case that the shooting was murder and convicted Dorothy of manslaughter.

Contrary to The New Yorker account, Dorothy was sentenced to 5 to 15 years in the women’s prison at Auburn, but ended up serving just four years of the sentence, during which time she was trained as a stenographer. She was released in January 1929 for good behavior. Mickey Connors served a few months in the Tombs prison for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

You can read Gribben’s full account in The Malefactor’s Register.

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Ralph Barton (Wikipedia)

The issue also included this wonderful two-page illustrated feature by Ralph Barton, a subject in my previous blog post, The Vicious Circle. Barton was very familiar with French life and customs. According to Wikipedia, in 1915 Puck magazine “sent Barton to France to sketch scenes of World War I. It was then that Barton developed a great love of all things French, and throughout his life he would return to Paris to live for periods of time. In 1927 the French government awarded Barton the Legion of Honour.” 

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And finally, a cartoon from the issue that takes aim at New York City Mayor John F. Hylan. From the very first issue of The New Yorker (Feb. 21, 1925), the mayor (comically referred to as “Jonef Hylan”) was a frequent target:

The next great figure in the early legends of New York is that of Jonef Hylan. Hylan, in all probability, was not a real person; but it is impossible to understand New York without giving careful study to the Hylan myth. In many respects, it resembles the Sun Myth of other great civilizations; for his head was as a head of flame, and he rose early each morning from beyond the East River, bringing light into all the dark places and heat into the sessions of the Board of Estimate. The populace called their Sun God “Red Mike”; but in the frenzy of their devotions, they simply yelled “Ra! Ra!

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Cartoon by Al Frueh from the July 4, 1925 issue (New Yorker Digital Archive)