In Search of Yuletide Cheer

E.B. White’s “Notes and Comment” column led off the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” and as such helped set the tone for what was to follow in the magazine.

Dec. 14, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt. Opening image: Construction workers line up for pay beside the first Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York in 1931. (NY Daily News)

For the Dec. 14 issue White attempted to strike a positive note in the aftermath of the stock market crash, offering a few nuggets of hope for the holiday season:

HEAVYWEIGHTS…Both President Herbert Hoover and retired prizefighter Gene Tunney offered signs of stability to a nation reeling from economic collapse. At right, Gene and Mary Tunney return to New York on the ocean liner Vulcania after 14 months in Europe. (Wikipedia/AP)

Alexander Woollcott, however, described his financial woes in his “Shouts and Murmurs” column, where he parodied newspapers that listed charity cases during the Christmas season:

BOOK-END POOR…Alexander Woollcott, in a 1939 portrait by Carl Van Vechten. (Wikipedia)

Paris correspondent Janet Flanner noted how the ripples of the market crash were being felt in Paris: Americans no longer had wads of cash to lavish on booze, jewelry, antiques and real estate:

DON’T RAIN ON OUR PARADE…The Place de la Nation, Paris, 1930. (thevintagenews.com)

Flanner added that despite the past boorish behavior of American tourists, the level of schaudenfreude among the French was remarkably low…

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Sinful Diversions

For yet another sign that the Roaring Twenties were decidedly over, it appeared that even “Sex” had run its course. Theater critic Robert Benchley noted that Mae West’s scandalous 1926 play inspired a spate of shows that had little new to offer, save for amping up the salacious content: A Primer for Lovers, The Amorous Antic, and Young Sinners. Audiences were unimpressed. A Primer for Lovers closed after just 24 performances, The Amorous Antic after just eight. Only Young Sinners would survive into the spring season.

JUST LOOK WHAT YOU STARTED…”Sex” was panned by critics as vulgar, but Broadway audiences in 1926 loved it. After 375 performances police arrested Mae West on obscenity charges, which landed her in a prison workhouse for ten days. (boweryboyshistory.com)
Actress Phoebe Foster (left) found success on Broadway, but not so much in The Amorous Antic, which closed after just eight performances. Dorothy Appleby (right) had better success with Young Sinners, which ran for 289 performances through August 1930. (IMDB)

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Final Bows

Theater was changing in other ways too. In the late 19th and early 20th century audiences patronized various playhouses based more on their reputation and tradition than on a particular play. E.B. White, in the “Talk of the Town” noted the imminent passing of one such house, the Knickerbocker Theatre, slated for demolition in 1930. The 33-year-old theater was Broadway’s first to display a moving electric sign (1906).

A HOUSE OF GOOD REPUTE…The Knickerbocker Theatre at 1396 Broadway was built in 1896 and demolished in 1930. (Internet Broadway Database)

White noted that smaller venues like the Knickerbocker, with their own distinct character and clientele, were falling victim to big theater-owning corporations that introduced more homogeneity into the play-going scene. In White’s estimation just two old-timers remained:

Both buildings still stand. The New Amsterdam, constructed in 1902–03, is now the oldest theater on Broadway. In the 1910s and 1920s it hosted the Ziegfeld Follies on its main stage and the racier Ziegfeld Midnight Frolics on the building’s rooftop. The Music Box was constructed in 1921 by composer Irving Berlin and producer Sam H. Harris to house Berlin’s Music Box Revues.

DISNEYFIED…The New Amsterdam, constructed in 1902–03, still stands today, now operated by the Disney Company, which signed a 99-year lease with the city in 1993. When it was built it was the largest theater in New York, with a seating capacity of 1,702. (Wikipedia)
IRVING’S PLACE…The Music Box Theatre at 239 West 45th Street was constructed in 1921 by composer Irving Berlin and producer Sam H. Harris to house Berlin’s Music Box Revues. It was later co-owned by Berlin’s estate and the Shubert Organization until Shubert assumed full ownership in 2007. (Wikipedia)

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Stocks Down, Arno Up

Peter Arno could be found all over the Dec. 14 issue: an ad promoting his new book Peter Arno’s Parade, a blurb in the book section touting the same…this ad for Peck & Peck featuring his handiwork…

…in the comics, a full pager with the economy as a theme…

…and this submission that was doubtless inspired by Arno’s own home life and his brief, tempestuous marriage to New Yorker colleague Lois Long

…here’s a couple of comics featuring Milquetoast characters…this one by Garrett Price

…and another by Leonard Dove

…and two submissions from one of my favorite cartoonists, Barbara Shermund, so ahead of her time…

 

Helen Hokinson examined a physician’s bedside manner…

…and I. Klein offered his take on the new economy…

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We move right along to the Dec. 21, 1929 issue, where things seemed to turn a bit more sour…

Dec. 21, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

Elmer Rice’s serialized novel, A Voyage to Purilia, finally concluded in its 11th installment in the New Yorker…and E.B. White took on a more choleric disposition in his “Notes and Comment”…

Lois Long contributed a “Tables for Two” column, a feature that had become infrequent and would soon be shelved as she turned her full attentions to her fashion column “On and Off the Avenue.” In this installment of “Tables” we get her first mention of the market calamity…

Robert Benchley finally found something to like on Broadway, because Billie Burke was the star attraction…

SHE”S THE GOOD ONE…Billie Burke in 1933. Most of us know her today for her performance as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. (Wikipedia)

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Violin Prodigy 2.0

The New Yorker raved about the 12-year-old violinist Yehudi Menuhin when he wowed audiences at the Berlin Philharmonic earlier in the year. So when the 10-year-old Ruggiero Ricci expertly fiddled with the Manhattan Symphony, well…

YEAH, I GOT THIS…Ruggiero Ricci, about 1930, by then a touring professional. At age 6 Ricci began lessons with Louis Persinger, who also taught another San Francisco prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin. (Text and image, The New York Times)

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Namesake

Despite the market crash, the skyline continued to change at a rapid pace, and as we enter the 1930s the city would add some of its most iconic buildings to the skyline. George Chappell, the New Yorker’s architecture critic, had this to say about the magazine’s “namesake”…

ROOMY…The New Yorker Hotel, at 481 Eighth Avenue. When the 43-story Art Deco hotel opened 1930, it contained 2,500 rooms, making it the city’s largest for many years. (Wikipedia)

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Art critic Murdock Pemberton continued his quest to make sense of the upstart Museum of Modern Art…

…and the American artists showcased there…

…I would add Edward Hopper, John Sloan, Lyonel Feininger, and Rockwell Kent (also displayed at the exhibition) but then again, I have the advantage of hindsight…

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From Our Advertisers

We have more New Yorker cartoonists augmenting their income through advertising, including (once again) Rea Irvin for Knox Hatters…

Raeburn Van Buren for G. Washington’s instant coffee (also a client of Helen Hokinson’s)…

…and Helen Hokinson for Frigidaire…

…and on to cartoons for Dec. 21, Hokinson again…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and another peek into marital bliss…

Next Time: The Curtain Falls…

 

 

 

Mussolini’s Romance Novel

About a decade before he joined the Nazis in spreading the madness of war across the European continent, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini penned a historical novel about a love affair between a Catholic cardinal and his beautiful mistress. Despite the premise, it was not exactly a Harlequin Romance.

Sept. 8, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey. Sept. 15, 1928 cover by Peter Arno. (click to enlarge)

Although many perceived Mussolini as nothing more than a thug, or even a clown when he styled himself as Il Duce, Mussolini thought himself an intellectual, and as a younger man sometimes worked as a journalist and essayist. That was also when he wrote his one and only novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress (1909), serialized in the socialist newspaper Il Popolo under the original title Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. When it was translated into English in 1928, the distasteful task of reviewing the book (in the Sept. 15, 1928 issue) fell to Dorothy Parker. She began thusly:

In all fairness, Parker did ask for it. She went on to write “On the memorable day that The Cardinal’s Mistress arrived in the office of this lucky magazine, I was the girl who pled, ‘Please, teacher, may I have it to take home with me? Honest, I don’t want a cent of money for reviewing it. I’ll do it free of charge; I’ll even pay handsomely for the privilege.’ Well, of course, they wouldn’t hear a word of that – or at least I hope to heaven they didn’t – but I got the book. I had all sorts of happy plans about it. I was going to have a lot of fun. I was going to kid what you Americans call the tripe (les tripes) out of it. At last, I thought, had come my big chance to show up this guy Mussolini. A regular Roman holiday, that’s what it was going to be.” But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

Alfred Armstrong, writing for Oddbooks (oddbooks.co.uk) describes The Cardinal’s Mistress as a story about a historical figure, Emanuel Madruzzo, Cardinal of Trent, his mistress Claudia Particella, “and the unhappy course of their love affair.” Armstrong notes that the book was written rather carelessly, with a wandering plot that suggests Mussolini’s only interest in the characters was to place them in a historical setting that provided “an excuse for lengthy anti-clerical rants, and to portray the lust, vengefulness and murderousness of their adversaries.”

Although she could not make heads nor tails out of the book, it did stir Parker’s imagination enough to conjure up an insult for the “old Duce.”

WHERE IS THE LOVE?…Cover of the 1928 translation of The Cardinal’s Mistress, an anti-clerical rant thinly disguised as a love story. At right, Benito Mussolini in 1928. (Amazon/waralbum.ru)

For good measure, I’ll toss in this New Yorker comic by Mary Petty that appeared a few weeks later in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue:

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The Sound Stays in the Picture

Gilbert Seldes joined the chorus of voices at the New Yorker who decried the advent of sound in motion pictures, particularly when sound was used as a gimmick rather than as an enhancement to the production. So when Paramount’s Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor put their hands (and their sounds) on Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece The Patriot, Seldes decided he’d had enough of this “talkie” nonsense, taking on the producers in a special feature in the Sept. 15 issue titled “The Old Believers:”

New Yorker artist Hugo Gellert paid his own respects to The Patriot with this illustration in the theatre review section of the Sept. 15, 1928 issue.

Following his opening salvo, Seldes told readers why the film was important, how it revived his faith in movies and even in the possibility of intelligence and taste among the masses:

PERNICIOUS INTERFERENCE…Critic Gilbert Seldes took aim at Paramount execs Adolph Zukor, far left, and Jesse Lasky, center, for mucking up Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot with unnecessary sound effects. All photos circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

As for the taste and intelligence of producers, that was another matter. Seldes concluded his piece by laying into Zukor and Lasky for their “pernicious interference” with the masterpiece:

Seldes was so disheartened that he wondered if movies, as an imaginative and intelligent art form, would be dead in 10 years.

Seldes was wrong about the death of good movies, but ironically his beloved Patriot would not live on, and would disappear into the land of lost films. There are a few pieces in a UCLA archive, but no negative or set of complete reels are known to exist.

WHY YOU NAUGHTY OLD CZAR…Florence Vidor as Countess Ostermann and Emil Jannings as Czar Paul I in The Patriot. Nominated for five Oscars, the film would win in the “Best Writing” category at the 1930 Academy Awards.(mubi.com)

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Before He Was Kooky and Ooky

The child actor Jackie Coogan was the focus of a lengthy “Talk of the Town” piece (written by Alva Johnston and E. B. White) that looked in on the life and habits of the young film star, best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film classic The Kid.

Coogan was one of the first child stars in film history, earning an estimated $3 to $4 million (roughly more than $50 million in today’s dollars). “Talk” found the 13-year-old star in his dressing room, reading a theatrical newspaper:

The New Yorker couldn’t resist mentioning that the magazine itself proved to be an inspiration to the boy and his father:

As one of the first child stars Coogan also broke some tough ground for other child actors to follow. In early 1935 Jackie’s father, John Henry Coogan, Jr., was killed in a car accident. John Henry conservatively managed Jackie’s assets, but after his death John Henry’s widow, Lillian and her new husband Arthur Bernstein (who was the family lawyer), squandered most of Jackie’s fortune on fur coats, diamonds and expensive cars. Jackie Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses was only able to recover a mere $126,000 of his earnings. One good outcome was California’s enactment in 1939 of the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers. The California Child Actor’s Bill, sometimes called the “Coogan Act,” required employers of child actors to set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust.

Jackie Coogan would go on to perform in mostly supporting roles and would marry four times, most famously to actress Betty Grable from 1937 to 1939. He gained renewed fame in the 1960s by portraying Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series.

VARIETY ACT…Clockwise, from left: Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, featuring 6-year-old Jackie Coogan; Jackie on a 1928 visit to Berlin with his mother Lillian and father John Henry Coogan, Jr.; Jackie as Uncle Fester in TV’s The Addams Family, 1966. (Wikiwand/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A mixed bag from the Sept. 15 issue, including this strip of ads near the back of the magazine that indicate not all New Yorker readers were as well-heeled as those who were targeted by the splashier, full-page ads in the magazine’s front section…

…and yet another endorsement for Old Gold cigarettes, this time from the Duchess of Sutherland, who joined fellow blue bloods in the blindfold test:

Nothing like profiting from the misery of others. In this ad, James McCreery & Company offered up rugs from “old Turkish families” who were “forced to sell their rare rugs and jewels in order to exist.” They weren’t cheap: the rug pictured was offered for $3,250, more than $45,000 in today’s buying power.

The “famous stage beauty” and early silent film star Billie Burke (who was married to Florenz Ziegfeld of “Follies” fame) shilled for Cutex nail polish…

…and 11 years later would portray Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz.

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (cinemagumbo)

Now for the our comics, Peter Arno from the Sept. 8 issue…

And in the Sept 15 issue, W.P. Trent looks in on a homey café that moonlights as a speakeasy…

…and back to Peter Arno, who looks in on toffs slumming at Coney Island…

Next Time: This Thing Called Baseball…