Unnatural History

In my last post we visited the Central Park Zoo, circa 1931, and found a collection of animals displayed as curiosities in barren enclosures that in no way resembled natural habitats.

Aug. 29, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

It’s hard to say if those creatures were better or worse off than their cousins at the American Museum of Natural History, a short walk across the park to the northwest. Unlike the zoo, the tigers and rhinos at the museum were displayed in naturalistic, almost dreamlike settings. But then again they were dead; indeed, all that remained of them were their skins, skillfully fitted over skeletons of wood and clay.

SIMULACRUM…Clockwise, from top left, American Museum of Natural History staff mounting rhinoceros and Indian elephant, circa 1930; preparing African buffalo group diorama; staff cleaning elephant skin in preparation for mounting on a frame consisting of a skull and some wood. This would be covered with clay before the skin is fitted. (vintag.es)

E.B. White stopped by the famed museum to take a look at its new Asiatic Hall, and filed this report for “The Talk of the Town.”

The animals pictured below came from a couple of British big game hunters, gathered during expeditions in the 1910s and 1920s…

PLEASE HOLD STILL…American Museum of Natural History staff prepare the tiger group diorama in 1931. The display was in the new Asiatic Hall referred to by E.B. White. (vintage.es)
SURVIVORS OF A SORT…Nearly 90 years later, the tiger group is still on display at the American Museum of Natural History, now in the Hall of Biodiversity. (AMNH)
STILL THE SAME…This Asiatic leopard diorama, which so impressed E.B. White, also survives to this day, in the Hall of Asian Mammals at AMNH. (atlasobscura)
NEVER-ENDING BATTLE…The Sambar stag diorama, dating to 1911, is also mentioned by White in his article. (atlasobscura)

I am delighted that the AMNH (which I visited in December as an avid fan of diorama art) preserves these exhibits, which not only display animals — many now endangered — but also the artistry of painters, sculptors and taxidermists from a century ago. Sadly, many museums are scrapping these cultural treasures and replacing them with gaudy, interactive displays and video screens. An article in Newsweek (“Museum Dioramas Are as Endangered as the Animals They Contain,” Aug. 2, 2015) notes that around 2008 “the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., closed two diorama halls and reopened them with video screens, interactive features and stand-alone specimens where the dioramas had been.” In other words, the specimens were removed from naturalistic scenes and displayed as stand-alone curiosities, rather like those poor animals in the Central Park Zoo of yesteryear.

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Everyday Icons

Gilbert Seldes profiled industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904 – 1972), who along with contemporaries Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes was among celebrity designers of the midcentury. Like Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss was a well-known Broadway set designer who would go on to become an industrial designer in the era of streamlining. But unlike Loewy and Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss went well beyond mere styling, taking a practical, scientific approach to problems that would not only make products better looking, but also safer and more comfortable to use. An excerpt:

GOT MY START IN SHOW BIZ…Henry Dreyfuss in 1946, and his 1930-31 design of the RKO Theatre in Davenport, Iowa (now the Adler Theatre). (Wikipedia/qctimes.com)
ICONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE…Some of Dreyfuss’s designs included, top row: the Western Electric Model 500 telephone (center), which replaced the clunkier Model 300 (left) in 1950; the Hoover model 150 vacuum cleaner, from 1936; middle row: Dreyfuss designs for the New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train (1936); and the NYC Hudson locomotive for the Twentieth Century Limited (1938); bottom row: Dreyfuss designed things as varied as tractors for John Deere (1960); the Honeywell T87 circular wall thermostat (1953–present); and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera (1972).

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Body-Building Barnum

Another well-known figure of the 1930s was Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), an early proponent of physical culture who would prefigure such notables as Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But none of them were quite like McFadden, who also created a pulp publishing empire (among his magazines: Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Photoplay and the notorious tabloid newspaper The New York Evening Graphic).

READ ALL ABOUT IT…Macfadden’s Evening Graphic was all about scandal, and especially sex and murder.

Macfadden also established numerous “healthatoriums” across the East and Midwest, including (in 1931) his latest venture, the Physical Culture Hotel near Dansville, New York. E.B. White explained, in his “Notes and Comment”…

MCFADDEN SHOWS OFF HIS BOD in 1910 (left) at age 42, and at age 55 in 1923. (Wikipedia)
BEFORE AND AFTER…Mcfadden acquired the 1882 Jackson Sanatorium near Dansville, NY in 1931 and renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel. Circa 1930s images at top contrast with the condition of the property today — it fell into disrepair after MacFadden’s death in 1955, and closed for good in 1971. Known to locals as the “Castle on the Hill” in its heyday, it can still be glimpsed by motorists traveling on I-390. (bernarrmacfadden.com/abandonedplaces.livejournal.com)

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For the Birds

When I came across “Farewell to Birds,” on page 17, I thought for a moment it was one of James Thurber’s animal parodies (there was even a Thurber cartoon at the bottom of the page), but then I noticed our writer was Will Cuppy, (1884-1949) who wrote in the Thurber vein (Cuppy was ten years Thurber’s senior) and like Thurber, was a bit of a curmudgeon. From 1931 until his death Cuppy wrote satirical pieces for the New Yorker that were later collected into books (also like Thurber). Here is an excerpt from “Farewell to Birds.”

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Satirist Will Cuppy (center, in 1932) and two of his early books. How to be a Hermit (1929) was a humorous look at his life residing in a Jones Island seaside shack from 1921 to 1929 (he was escaping city noise and hayfever); How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes was a 1931 compilation of Cuppy’s articles, including the one above.

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Lois Long, newly divorced from cartoonist Peter Arno, concluded her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) by telling readers about her “swell new hairdo”…

HAVE A SEAT, LOIS…The perm room at Charles of the Ritz, 1932.

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Your Majesty

Speaking of new looks, Central Park West was boasting the addition of a new “skyscraper apartment building” called the Majestic. “The Sky Line” reported:

APTLY NAMED…The Majestic at Central Park West. (Pinterest)

Another building making its mark was the Parc Vendôme on West 57th, offering more than 600 apartments with annual rents ranging from $1,100 to $6,600. Condos in the same building today range from $495,000 to $5,495,000.

BREAD BOX INCLUDED…The Parc Vendôme on West 57th. (street easy.com)

From Our Advertisers

Henry Mandel, one of New York City’s most ambitious developers in the 1920s and early 30s, touted the Parc Vendôme in this advertisement…

…I wonder if Lois Long (see above) got one of these “dos” at the Ritz…I love the snob appeal of this ad — “The New Paris Way of Doing Your Hair”…

…which seemed to work…here is a random sample of Hollywood stars in 1931, all wearing the look…

DOING THE WAVE…From left, Tilly Losch, Constance Bennett, and Barbara Stanwyck.

…other ads appealing to the Continental lifestyle…a very understated yet elegant ad for Guerlain lipstick, and Nellie Harrington-Levine gave us a disinterested deb sporting “the wave,” a cigarette and a velvet dress…

…and Pond’s continued its parade of rich society women to sell its cold cream…here we are presented with “Mrs. Morgan Belmont,” aka Margaret Frances Andrews (1894 – 1945), a Newport socialite and prize-winning show dog breeder…

Andrews didn’t limit herself to cold cream, here appearing in a 1927 ad for Simmons mattresses…

Margaret Frances Andrews was a noted dog breeder, seen above at the Newport Dog Show around 1915; below, Andrews had a small role in the 1920 Mary Pickford film Way Down East. Andrews, at left, was credited as “Mrs. Morgan Belmont.”

…and we move on to this sad little ad from the back pages, featuring something called “Peeko,” which apparently mimicked the flavors of Rye, Gin and Rum…it must have tasted awful…

…our cartoons feature Perry Barlow, and I can’t quite tell if this guy is drinking a soda or some bootleg gin, which was often sold at select gas stations…

…a two-page sequence from Gardner Rea

Otto Soglow went fishing…

…and commiserated with a couple of unemployed guys whose plight is ignored by the celebrity-obsessed media…

Alan Dunn hit the lecture circuit…

Kemp Starrett sketched some wink-wink, nudge-nudge at the men’s store…

…and we close with James Thurber, and the trials of our elders…

Next Time: Bonfire of the Vanities…

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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