Amateur Beauty

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Cover for Sept. 19 by Max Ree.

It was a busy week for the Sept. 19 issue of The New Yorker. “The Talk of the Town” reported that ‘amateur beauties” at the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant (known today as the Miss America Pageant) were “protesting against the presence of professional sisters in the contest.” Talk then posed this question:

“Is beauty, one wondered, ever amateur? Is it not the most professional of all professional matters? To a man it would seem so. But women may know better. And if there is a distinction—if we are to have amateur and professional beauties—why should not the Atlantic City promoters take a leaf from golf’s book and hold an open championship, wherein the two classes may meet?

Talk concluded:

The winner of last year’s beauty contest, Miss Ruth Malcomson, tells how she won it in a recent issue of Liberty; and from these writings we leap hastily to the conclusion that the very beautiful are also very very simple.

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Ruth Malcomson, Miss America 1924. (Vintage Everyday)

“Talk” was right about Ruth Malcomson, who was just 18 when she won the title. A native of Philadelphia, she defeated 85 fellow contestants including incumbent Mary Campbell, who was seeking her third consecutive crown. At the time the contest was only in its fourth year, and the winner was called “The Golden Mermaid.”

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Malcomson crowned “The Golden Mermaid,” Miss America 1924

Malcomson was among the critics of the “professional” contestants. According to her obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 28, 1988) Malcomson stated in 1925 that “The pageant now has become nothing but a commercial proposition to exploit the beauties who make their living from their good looks. What chance has an ordinary girl, untrained, to win a contest in which girls who have been trained to make the most of their beauty are competing?”

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Ninety-one years later…Miss New York Kira Kazantsev crowned Miss America 2015. (The Blaze)

In her Liberty Magazine interview, she also blasted women’s groups for berating her involvement in the competition.

Malcomson hinted that the women’s groups were exploiting her, not the pageant (yes, there is nothing new under the sun…).

True to her word, Malcomson married an unassuming Carl Schaubel in 1931 and returned to a quiet, simple life in suburban Philadelphia.

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Standing next to the Rickenbacker car she won as Miss America in 1924, Ruth Malcomson playfully spars with World Heavyweight Champion boxer Jack Dempsey. (Vintage Everyday)

In other “Talk” items, the “No Smoking” rule at the public library was challenged, and arguments were made for special smoking rooms that could be reserved for writers. The column also offered comment on the growing popularity of tennis as a professional spectator sport, rather than merely a side activity for a society weekend:

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“Profiles” turned its attention to bodybuilder and publisher Bernarr McFadden (featured in an earlier post in this blog). McFadden was always at the cutting-edge of scandal, whether for the nearly nude photos featured in his Physical Culture Magazine, or for the celebrity scandal and sensational crime reported in his Evening Graphic.

In his essay “Murder As Bad Art,” Waldo Frank pondered America’s high homicide rate, and suggested that murder is an expedient means toward an end for the impatient American. An excerpt, with artwork by Helen Hokinson:

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Willa Cather (Nebraska History)

In “Books,” Harry Este Dounce offered a lengthy, thoughtful and positive review of Willa Cather’s latest novel, The Professor’s House (my favorite by Cather), and likened its tone to an Ibsen play. Cather would continue to receive praise from New Yorker critics throughout the remainder of her career.

In “Sports Of The Week” John Tunis offered extensive coverage of the Davis Cup matches, and noted that American star Bill Tilden was hurt and was “far from the Tilden of old.” There were rumors that Tilden was determined to throw his match with French tennis champion Jean Borotra. Tunis wrote that he had his suspicions, but offered that perhaps Tilden was playing carelessly as he had done before “with other less celebrated opponents.”

And Lois Long offered her frank opinions on two New York hotspots, the 45th Street Yacht Club and the Owl Club at 125 East 45th:

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The Yacht Club building today (erbology.com)

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And another ad courtesy of Raoul Fleischmann, with testimonials from a man and two women who credit Fleischmann yeast with curing them of boils, constipation and “bilous” attacks:

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Well, at least advertising revenue is up, but this ad seems out of place in a magazine like The New Yorker:

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Culkin was a Tammany Hall politician who would serve as county sheriff from 1926 to 1929. He was later indicted for embezzling interest money from the sheriff’s office, part of the whole mess that brought down Mayor Jimmy Walker (we will explore that later, I am sure).

Now, for a couple of cartoons by I. Klein and Johann Bull, featured on facing pages, that illustrate two very different aspects of New York life in the 1920s:

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Next time: Fall fashions!

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A Peach of a Scandal

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Cover for August 15, 1925, by H.O. Hoffman.

Ralph Barton’s “The Graphic Section” in the August 15, 1925 edition of The New Yorker gave readers their first whiff of one of the sensational scandals of the Roaring Twenties. Barton reported that wealthy, middle-aged bachelor Edward Browning (then 51 years old) wanted to “adopt” a “sixteen-year-old cutie for his very own.”

What Barton referenced in his comic illustration foreshadowed the “Peaches” scandal that would occur the following year.

According to an April 1, 2012 article by Dan Lee in New York Magazine (titled with the subhead, “She was 16, he was 52, what could go wrong?”), Browning was well known in New York City “as perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the city’s eligible bachelors…worth what would now be an estimated $300 million.”

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Ralph Barton illustrates Edward Browning’s predicament in “adopting” Mary Louise Spas. (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Lee writes that Browning was already a tabloid fixture at age 40 when he married his first wife, Adele, a considerably younger file clerk. They adopted two daughters, Marjorie and “little Dorothy Sunshine,” Browning’s favorite. When Adele left him for a “28-year-old playboy dentist,” they split the girls between them. Browning, of course, chose “Sunshine,” and vowed never to marry again. Lee takes it from there:

In what the tabloids quickly helped morph into a Willy Wonka–style lottery, Daddy set about finding a sister for Sunshine: After personally reviewing 12,000 applications and interviewing scores of would-be daughters, he chose Mary Louise Spas of Queens, who, despite being 16 and therefore two years older than the cutoff, bore a charming gold tooth and stole his heart. A My Fair Lady transformation ensued, rapturously reported by the press, which continued trolling Spas’s past, ultimately uncovering revealing swimsuit photos that led to school records that led to the disclosure that Mary was actually 21 and not poor. Daddy moved to have the adoption annulled. Mary responded with a tabloid tell-all and lawsuit, alleging Daddy was a pervert.

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“Daddy” helps “Peaches” with her coat. If that is an image of the Titantic, the irony is just too rich…(Retronaut)

According to Lee, Browning then turned his attention to charity, “especially for a local chapter of the Phi Lambda Tau social sorority for high-school girls, of which he was the main benefactor.” Lee continues:

The sorority’s primary function was throwing dances across Manhattan for girls in scanty flapper dress, where Daddy, with his long, sagging face and steep W-collared dress shirts, smoked cigars and held court. And so it went that one night, inside the ballroom of the Hotel McAlpin on 34th and Broadway, Browning’s life intersected with Frances Heenan’s, whom the press would describe as a “chubby,” strawberry-blonde high-school dropout with “piano legs” but an inexplicably “magnetic” smile who worked as a shop clerk and lived with her single mother in Washington Heights. He likened her to peaches and cream, securing her lifelong nickname. Thirty-seven days later to thwart a child-protective-services investigation, they were married.

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Peaches and Daddy with African goose. (brandypurdy.blogspot)

The wedding took place on June 23, 1926, Peaches’ 16th birthday, but later that year, Peaches would seek a divorce.

The divorce trial in White Plains, New York drew intense coverage by the tabloids including Bernarr McFadden’s notorious New York Graphic, which published “composographs” of the couple, including this one:

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Composographs, forerunners of photo manipulation, were retouched photographic collages popularized by publisher and physical culture advocate Bernarr Macfadden in his New York Evening Graphic. The Graphic was dubbed “The Porno-Graphic” by critics of the time and has been called “one of the low points in the history of American journalism.” The images were cut and pasted together using the heads or faces of current celebrities, glued onto staged images created by employees in Macfadden’s in-house studio. (Image: dhtinshakerheights.blogspot.com, Text: Wikipedia)

The story was featured in newspapers across the country, including reports of Peaches’ testimony regarding her husband’s odd sexual behavior and the fact that he kept an African goose in their bedroom. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Don’t be a goof,” which Browning allegedly used to insult Peaches, came into national vogue, and later turned up in the lyrics of the song “On Your Toes,” by Rodgers and Hart.

In the end, the judge ruled that Peaches had abandoned her husband without cause, and released Browning from the marriage. She was however awarded a $6,000 “widow’s portion” when Browning died in 1934.

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Peaches in her vaudeville days. (travsd.wordpress.com)

According to Lee, Peaches pursued a successful career in vaudeville, “had an affair with Milton Berle,” would marry and divorce three more times, and would become an alcoholic. On August 23, 1956, her mother heard a crashing sound in the bathroom of their New York City apartment and found Peaches unconscious with a large contusion above her ear. She was dead at 46.

If you want to read more about this strange coupling, Michael Greenburg has written a bookPeaches and Daddy: A Story of the Roaring 20s, the Birth of Tabloid Media, and the Courtship that Captured the Hearts and Imaginations of the American Public.

And so on to the rest of the issue…

“Profiles” featured Theodore Dreiser, whom Waldo “Search-light” Frank dubbed “the martyr of the American Novel” and a “heroic warrior against legions of a commercial and Puritan world.”

“The Talk of the Town” offered this postscript on the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” observing that the small Tennessee town was suffering a bit of hangover (and attendant humiliation) from all of the trial publicity:

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“Sports of the Week” covered the annual “Dog Show of the Consolidated Hamptons,” featuring illustrations by Johan Bull:

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In her column, “When Nights Are Bold,” Lois Long offered the Montmartre as a venue for summer entertaining:

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“Music” featured a brief review of Mayor Hylan’s “free people’s concert,” Aida, at Ebbett’s Field, taking the usual shots at the mayor’s grasping attempts at publicity:

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Program promoting Mayor Hylan’s public operas and other services from August 1925

“Moving Pictures” peered between fingers at Tod Browning’s latest picture, The Unholy Three (Yes, that’s the same Tod Browning who would go on to direct Dracula with Bela Lugosi in 1931 and the creepy 1932 cult classic, Freaks):

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Lon Chaney and friend in The Unholy Three (1925) (Alamo Drafthouse)

Sweet dreams!

Next time, more horseplay, and another jab at the mayor:

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