A Bridge Too Far

Despite the rise of the professional classes in the 20th century (and their attendant rules for accreditation and licensing) there still existed individuals who practiced at the highest levels with little or no formal training.

June 8, 1929 cover by Julien de Miskey.

Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935) was a case in point. An Austrian immigrant who designed New York’s Hell Gate Bridge among others had little formal education and no degree in civil engineering. Rather, he learned by working as an assistant on various construction projects and teaching himself mathematics, metallurgy, engineering, hydraulics and other principles of the building profession.

Lindenthal was praised for his innovations in bridge design as well as for his artistic eye, but one project eluded him throughout his career: the largest bridge in the world—a massive double-decker that would span the Hudson River from 57th Street in New York City to Hoboken in New Jersey. The June 8, 1929 “Talk of the Town” checked in on the nearly 80-year-old bridge builder:

A cornerstone for the Hudson bridge was laid in 1895, but a series of bad breaks, including the 1898 Depression and various political setbacks, served to continually delay the project. The New York Tribune anticipated the bridge in its April 28, 1907 edition…

(untapped cities) click to enlarge

…and three years later the Tribune seemed confident that work was finally underway…

(untapped cities) click to enlarge

…however by the 1920s the bridge was still a dream. In 1921 Scientific American offered the latest glimpse of Lindenthal’s proposed 57th Street — a span 6,000 feet in length, with a 200-foot-wide double deck accommodating 24 lanes of traffic and 12 railroad tracks. An artist’s rendering included a massive building, on an arched plinth, positioned over the bridge deck:

BIG PLANS…Clockwise, from top left: Artist’s rendering of Gustav Lindenthal’s proposed 57th Street bridge from the June 25, 1921 issue of Scientific American. That same issue featured a size comparison with the then-tallest building in the world. Below, the 1895 cornerstone, recently recovered from a crumbling pier on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and relocated to the grounds of Steven’s Institute of Technology in Hoboken. (untappedcities.com) click to enlarge

The New Yorker suggested that Lindenthal’s legacy was already secure, and with his determination and vigorous constitution, he still might still win the day:

Despite his vigor, Lindenthal would not live to see his dream realized. However, he is remembered for building some of New York’s most iconic bridges, including the Hell Gate and Queensboro:

LEGACY…Clockwise, from top left, Hell Gate Bridge; Gustav Lindenthal, circa 1920; Queensboro Bridge. (Library of Congress/Britannica/Pinterest)

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Keeping Up With the Lindberghs

Despite his worldwide fame, Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) detested the limelight, particularly when it came to his personal life. Writing in the column “The Wayward Press,” humorist Robert Benchley mocked the newspapers for their invasions into the lives of the celebrated, including newlyweds Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

MIND YOUR OWN BEESWAX…Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh after their marriage in a private ceremony on May 27, 1929, at the home of her parents in Englewood, New Jersey. (Library of Congress)

Benchley wasn’t buying the newspaper industry’s insistence that the public demanded to know the facts about the flyboy’s nuptials:

SENSATIONAL, ISN”T IT?…An NEA Wire Service account of the “secret” Lindbergh-Morrow wedding. Click image to enlarge.

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Let the Good Times Roll

With the newly remodeled Central Park Casino officially christened by Mayor Jimmy Walker and his cronies, the New Yorker’s Lois Long (in her column “Tables for Two”) decided to pay a visit to see what all the fuss was about:

PARTY LIKE IT’S 1933…Revelers at the Central Park Casino (top) celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933. Below, the Casino in 1929. (Corbis/New York Times)

Long also commented on the declining fortunes of another familiar face of New York nightlife, Texas Guinan, who had fled Manhatten’s smoky speakeasy scene for the bucolic climes of Nassau County…

GOODBYE CITY LIFE…Texas Guinan took her nightclub to the quiet village of Valley Stream, New York, located just south of Queens in Nassau County. Guinan didn’t abandon all the trappings of city life: she drove to Valley Stream in a lavender Rolls Royce, and continued to greet her patrons with her famous “Hello, Sucker!” (Pinterest/texasguinanblogspot.com)

Long concluded that regardless where one ended up on a summer evening, one should be aware that a shabbier crowd awaited their company:

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Cuba Libre

Now we look at another New Yorker contributor who today is not exactly a household name: Donald Barr Chidsey (1902-1981), an American writer, biographer, historian and novelist best known for his adventure fiction. In this short column he offered some insights into the Cuban drinking scene:

ADVENTURESOME LAD…Donald Barr Chidsey wrote more than 50 books, including many action-adventure titles such as Captain Adam, from 1953. Note the resemblance of the hero on the cover to the author. (etsy/Amazon)

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Waxing Poetic

From its very first issue, the New Yorker also published a wide variety of poets, including Nicholas Samstag (1904-1968),who contributed several poems to the magazine in 1928 and 1929. Samstag later went on to a successful career in advertising, and was a close associate of  Edward Bernays, considered the father of public relations and propaganda.

A frequent contributor to the New Yorker, writer, poet and critic Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) published more than three dozen poems in the magazine from 1929 to 1972. Here is his first contribution, in the June 8, 1929 issue:

Van Doren’s last contribution to the New Yorker was published on Nov. 18, 1972, less than a month before his death. It was appropriately titled “Good Riddance”…

DID THE APPLE FALL FAR FROM THE TREE?…At left, a circa 1925 portrait of Mark Van Doren. He was the father of Charles Van Doren, who achieved brief renown as the 1957 winner of the rigged game show Twenty One. He is pictured at far right with fellow contestant Vivienne Nearing and game show host Jack Barry. (art.net/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

As summer approached some distinct themes emerged in ads aimed at female consumers. Here is a collection of ads from the June 8 issue that capitalized on the new tanning craze of the late 1920s…

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…and another big craze of the 1920s, the permanent wave, seemed to be a necessity as summer approached…

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…as for the gents, check out this new line of Jantzen swimwear modeled by what appear to be identical twins…

…and when you’re out of the water, a pair of “fashion welts” were all the rage for tip-toeing across the hot sands of Southampton…

…this ad from B. Altman depicted two women clad for “open motoring” (not sure how those long, lithe figures will fit in that tiny rumble seat)…

…for a less dusty mode of transportation, you could hop aboard The Broadway Limited for a quick 20-hour jaunt to Chicago…

…or better yet, have a relaxing smoke with one of your chums aboard a Sikorsky seaplane…

…our cigarette ad for this week comes from Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro, who once again exploited the nation’s youth with a bogus handwriting contest that doubled as a product endorsement…

…our June 8 comics are from Helen Hokinson, who offered a full page of illustrations from a “Fifth Avenue Wedding”…

…while Leonard Dove peeked in on a wastrel son and his disappointed father…

…and we have an awkward moment revealed by an unknown cartoonist (ID anyone?)…

…and an observation by C.W. Anderson on the minimalism of modernist design…

…and finally, Peter Arno’s take on the challenges of shooting sound motion pictures…

Caption: “Lord, Mr. Rolbert, you’ll have to develop a more robust sneeze—the public will think you’re a sissy!”

Next Time: Something Old, Something New…

The Unspeakables

For all its embrace of the modern city and its technological wonders, the New Yorker mostly despaired of the changes wrought by the introduction of sound to motion pictures.

June 1, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

Granted, early sound technology was primitive, with directors, actors and crew members adapting on the fly to the demands of a new medium that required absolute silence on film sets and cumbersome microphones that severely limited the movements of actors. Screenwriters, accustomed to writing brief intertitles in silent films, now had to write expository dialogue, and actors had to rely less on exaggerated facial expressions and body movements and more on the spoken word. And it helped if you didn’t have a speech impediment or heavy accent.

Writing for “The Reporter at Large” column (titled “The Unspeakables”), Hollywood correspondent Jean-Jacques lamented that the talkies were “here to stay”…

BARNLIKE STAGES were erected on both coasts to produce early silent films. Clockwise, from top left, Fox’s World Paragon Studios in Ft. Lee, NJ, circa 1917; interior of the studio; several films in production, side-by-side, at Edison’s Bronx studio, circa 1915; Fox studios in Los Angeles, 1920s. (moviemice.com/Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques recalled the professions that would now be lost to the talkies, including the “mood musicians” who played their instruments on silent film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors…

IN THE MOOD…During the silent era “mood musicians” were hired to play their instruments on film sets in order to evoke emotions from the actors. (Pinterest)
THE SILENCE of SOUND…In the early days of the talkies the entire set had to be silent, and special care had to be taken to ensure loud cameras were housed in soundproof boxes such as those pictured above. Instead of the introduction of sound expanding the capabilities of filmmaking, it was often limited by the bulky gear used to capture that sound. Therefore, many films consisted of “stage” musical numbers that were static shots. (Caption and image at left courtesy Colorado College. Image at right from cinecollage.net)

The writer also noted the challenges that faced “the old scenario writer…hemmed in by a multitude of new rivals…

WE HAVE WAYS OF MAKING YOU TALK…Dorothy Arzner (left) poses with “It Girl” Clara Bow in a publicity shot for The Wild Party, Bow’s first talking picture. Bow is famously quoted as saying (in 1930) “I hate talkies. They’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action.” Arzner tried to remedy that problem: she is credited with inventing the boom mike, which allowed for greater movement by the actor. (Paramount Pictures/Wikimedia Commons)

Jean-Jacques recounted the frustrations experienced by one old-time actor dealing with the limitations of bulky sound equipment…

This actor was not alone, A number of major silent film stars including Charlie Chaplin, Louise Brooks, and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. Motion Picture Classic magazine (September 1930) quoted Bow as saying, “I hate talkies … they’re stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me.” According to the article, a visibly nervous Bow had to do a number of retakes in The Wild Party because her eyes kept wandering up to the microphone overhead.

SILENCE IS GOLDEN…A number of major silent film stars including (from left) Louise Brooks, Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow did not embrace the novelty of sound pictures. (Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques signed off his New Yorker piece with the hope that someday pictures and sound would be combined into a worthy new art form…

Perhaps Jean-Jacques had to look no further than Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre to find that first glimmer of hope, for it was there that the Marx Brothers were tearing up the screen in their first talking picture, The Cocoanuts, reviewed in the magazine’s “The Current Cinema” column…

If the New Yorker was looking for snappy dialogue in motion pictures, there was plenty of it in The Cocoanuts, including this snippet between Groucho Marx, playing Mr. Hammer—an unscrupulous manager of a bankrupt Florida hotel—and wealthy hotel guest Mrs. Potter, played by Margaret Dumont…

Hammer: Do you know that property values have increased since 1929 one thousand per cent? Do you know that this is the biggest development since Sophie Tucker? Do you know that Florida is the show spot of America and Cocoanut Manor the black spot of Florida?

Mrs. Potter:  You told me that yesterday.

Hammer: I know but I left out a comma.

Or this gem…

Hammer, to Mrs. PotterJust think – tonight, tonight when the moon is sneaking around the clouds I’ll be sneaking around you. I’ll meet you tonight under the moon. Oh, I can see it now – you and the moon. Wear a neck-tie so I’ll know you.

SHOW ‘EM HOW IT’S DONE…Zeppo, Groucho, Chico and Harpo Marx in their first sound movie, The Cocoanuts, 1929. (vitaphonedreamer.wordpress.com)
BAMBOOZLER… Mrs Potter (Margaret Dumont), inspects Mr Hammer’s (Groucho Marx) Florida property “deals” in The Cocoanuts. (British Film Institute)

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For Sentimental Reasons

Additional evidence that the New Yorker was not always ready to embrace change came from its many articles, particularly in “The Talk of the Town,” that seemed to favor the preservation of buildings that defined the character of certain neighborhoods, including the early 19th century rowhouses that lined Washington Square North…

THEN AND NOW…At left, photo dated 1921 of Washington Square, north side of square looking east from 5th Avenue. Corner house in foreground is No. 12. The far end at right shows Nos. 3, 2, 1. At right, roughly the same block today. (Museum of the City of New York/1homedesigns.com)

At left, photo dated 1936 (by Berenice Abbott) of Washington Square North, nos. 21-25, between Fifth Avenue and MacDougal Street. At right, nos. 19-26 today. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia Commons)

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The Wittier Kaufman

Editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman worked and played within the orbit of the famed wits of the Algonquin Round Table, but was not a regular member like her husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman. But Beatrice Kaufman didn’t the need the Algonquin to display her wit. Indeed, according to Michael Galchinsky (writing for the Jewish Women’s Archive), she was regarded as one of the wittiest women in New York in the 1930s and 40s. Here is an example of her work in the June 1 issue of the New Yorker:

THE WITTIEST OF THEM ALL…Editor, writer and playwright Beatrice Kaufman (left, in undated photo). At right, comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice and her husband, Broadway playwright/producer George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s. (thepurplediaries.com/spartacus-educational.com)

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Rags to Riches

The life of Fred F. French was something out of dime novel; born in dire poverty, he became a self-made real estate tycoon and a schrewd builder of some of Manhattan’s biggest land developments. French was the subject of a profile written by Robert M. Coates, an art critic who would be a longtime contributor to New Yorker. An excerpt, with illustration by Al Frueh:

MONUMENTS TO FRED…Fred French’s New York City buildings included, clockwise from left, the 38-story Fred F. French Building (1927) at 45th Street and 551 Fifth Avenue (designated a National Landmark); Knickerbocker Village (1934) on the Lower East Side; and the East Side’s Tudor City apartment complex (1927-1932). (Pinterest/thelodownny.com/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Let’s start with a couple of lovely color ads, which appeared with greater frequency in the magazine…here we have a snatch of the good life, courtesy General Electric…

…and perhaps a less homespun image of the good life, from the makers of Dodge boats…

…and here we have another example of the modern world rushing in, this time in the form of instant coffee crystals…

…and another taste of the modern from Harper’s Bazar magazine, featuring an illustration by French artist and illustrator Charles Martin

…and just for kicks, another example of Martin’s work from an earlier time…

Image from Sports et Divertissements by Charles Martin, 1914. (Wikipedia)

…and here is a back page ad for costume bag maker Whiting & Davis, with an endorsement by Joan Crawford, who was already a pretty big star by 1929. My guess is that Whiting & Davis paid more for the endorsement than they did for the ad…I included a photo of Crawford (at left) from 1929 just to show that she did have a lighter side…

…this ad from the makers of Flit insecticide begs the question: was our beloved Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel) a racist? Well…

…although Geisel was a liberal Democrat and a supporter of the New Deal, during World War II he also supported the internment of Japanese Americans, as is evident from this unfortunate 1942 cartoon…

Dr. Seuss 1942 cartoon with the caption ‘Waiting for the Signal from Home’ (slideshare.net)

…later in life Geisel became a staunch environmentalist and anti-war protestor. In 1961 he wrote The Sneetches, which promoted racial equality. Perhaps Geisel lived to regret those earlier drawings…

…and on to our illustrators and cartoonists, beginning with this sketch by Garrett Price, apparently inspired from a recent trip to France (it was featured along with several other small sketches in the “Profile” section)…

Barbara Shermund had some fun with a double entendre…

…and popped up again with this look at the stock market…

C.W. Anderson found humor in the strange shapes of modernist furniture…

Otto Soglow commented on the glitzy hype of Broadway…

…and cartoonist/humorist Don Herold made his comics debut in the New Yorker with this entry…

…and finally, a bonus image I came across while researching the advent of sound motion pictures. The photo, from the silent era, shows two cameramen shooting a parade, possibly for a newsreel. Note how their only support consists of two wooden planks wedged into an open window…

(moviemice.com)

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far…

How Charles Shaw Felt About Things

Some people really do lead charmed lives: Take for example Charles Green Shaw. Born to wealth, he was a fixture in the glamorous social scene of Jazz Age New York, but was also a key player in its intellectual and artistic life. An accomplished author as well as a poet and illustrator, Shaw turned to painting in his late thirties and became a leading figure in the world of abstract art.

May 18, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

Shaw (1892-1974) was an early contributor to the New Yorker, penning more than 30 pieces for the magazine between 1925 and 1932, including three short contributions to the very first issue (Feb. 21, 1925). Here’s one of them:

That short piece anticipated a much longer entry by Shaw four years later—in the May 18, 1929 New Yorker—in a column titled “How I Feel About Things.” An excerpt…

YEAH & MEH…Charles Shaw liked Central Park at dusk; Amsterdam Avenue, not so much. (Time Freeze Photos/NYC Municipal Archives)
SOMETHING TO CHEW ON…Top left, Charles G. Shaw in 1945. Clockwise, from top right, Untitled Abstraction, 1943, oil on fiberboard; Wrigley’s, 1937, oil on canvas; photo of Wrigley’s gum package on top of a postcard image of New York City. On the back of the photo Shaw had written “idea for montage.” (Wrigley painting courtesy Art Institute of Chicago/other images from Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

…one more excerpt from the Shaw column…

Shaw would contribute more columns to the New Yorker in this vein: four more titled “How I Feel About Things” (1929-1931) followed by “How I Look at Things in General” (1931), and his final two New Yorker columns (1931-1932), “Things I Have Never Liked.”

He also illustrated children’s books, including two by Margaret Wise Brown (of Goodnight Moon fame). In 1947, Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk, a book that introduced children to abstract art. It remains in print and popular today.

SOMETHING FOR THE KIDS…Shaw provided illustrations for Margaret Wise Brown’s Black and White (1944) and The Winter Noisy Book (1947). (Harper)
STILL POPULAR…Shaw published It Looked Like Spilt Milk as a children’s introduction to abstract art. (Kinder Books)

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In the “Talk of the Town,” James Thurber looked at “high-living” trends among occupants atop the city’s newest skyscrapers, including developer Irwin Chanin:

CROWN JEWELS…The Chanin Building at 122 E. 42nd Street sports a distinctive crown that contains a wraparound terrace (now closed) at the 56th floor. A theater on the 50th and 51st floors, just below Irwin S. Chanin’s executive suite, was later converted into office space.(aviewoncities.com/untappedcities.com)
A THRONE IN THE SKY…The art deco bathroom in the 52nd floor executive suite of architect and real estate developer Irwin S. Chanin was designed by Jacques Delamarre. (Pinterest)
AERIAL GYMNASTICS…1930s postcard image of the Lincoln Building at 60 East 42nd. At right, the building’s rooftop gymnasium. (nyc-architecture.com/Tony Hisgett)

…Thurber continued his survey downtown in the financial district, and noted the proliferation of “lanterns” atop various skyscrapers…

ALL THE RAGE…”Lanterns” of various styles were popular toppers to Jazz Age skyscrapers. Above, the 24-story Consolidated Gas Building (now the Con Edison tower) by day and night. (Architect/Office for Metropolitan History/Michael Falco for The New York Times)
TRY TO TOP THIS…The distinctive lantern of the New York Central Building at 230 Park Avenue, now called the Helmsley Building  (andrewcusack.com/Wikipedia)

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Waldorf Adieu, Part Two

For a second week “The Talk of the Town” led off with an item about the demise of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, this time attempting to put it into some perspective…

…and Charles Merz offered a lengthy account of the auctions that were already taking place at the hotel as everything from grand pianos (125 in all) to a nine-foot-tall, five-ton, bronze-and-mahogany clock either went on the block or into storage…

GOING, GOING…Illustration depicting an auction of items from the hotel. At right, the Waldorf’s nine-foot-tall, five-ton clock, shown here on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. A gift from Queen Victoria, the clock was acquired after the fair by John Jacob Astor IV, builder of the Astoria part of the old Waldorf-Astoria. He had it placed near the old hotel’s Rose Room restaurant. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikimedia)
STILL TICKING…The clock as it appears today in the lobby of the new Waldorf-Astoria, which was completed in 1931. A gilded Statue of Liberty was added to the top of the clock in 1902, a gift from the French government. (Wikimedia/Elizabeth Doerr)

…Merz observed that although lavish tapestries, statuary, heavy furniture and other large items were up for sale, many buyers showed up merely to acquire a small memento…

IF THAT IS YOUR THING…Ornate furnishings (such as this French rococo-style furniture) were likely purchased at the auction by someone who actually had room for them. (Pinterest)

…Merz concluded that in the end, these “lesser treasures” will serve as props that will be handed down to the next generations, along with stories about the great and not-so-great who once slept or dined at the old hotel…

LAST DANCE…Workers emptying the old Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in 1929. (Library of Congress)

The May 18 issue featured yet another item on the Waldorf-Astoria — in “The Wayward Press” column, Robert Benchley (under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes”) suggested that the story on the hotel’s demise had been milked for all it was worth….

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The Algonquin Wits

Speaking of milking a story, Alexander Woollcott playfully referenced his own material in the May 18 issue—indeed, quoting a profile he had written in the very same issue. Woollcott penned a humorous piece on friend and fellow Algonquin Round Table wit George S. Kaufman (caricature by Miguel Covarrubias). An excerpt:

…a bit later in the profile, Woollcott observed…

…a few pages later in the same issue, Woollcott offered more observations on his friend in his weekly “Shouts and Murmurs” column…quoting the above paragraph…

Kaufman would have his own say in 1939 with his hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (written with Moss Hart). The play’s main character, a cantankerous misanthrope named Sheridan Whiteside, was closely based on Woollcott.

SPARRING PARTNERS…George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott often matched wits around the famed Algonquin Round Table. (Pinterest)
OUT OF SORTS…The cantankerous misanthrope Sheridan Whiteside (a character based on Alexander Woollcott) was portrayed by Monty Woolley in the 1939 hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. The play was adapted into a 1942 movie with Woolley (left) reprising his role as Sheridan Whiteside. Playing opposite Woolley are Bette Davis (center) and Ann Sheridan. (oldhollywoodtimes.com)

What did Woollcott think of the treatment? According to an article featured in Story of the Week (Library of America), he loved it: “When the play went on its West Coast tour, he even stepped into the lead role, treating audiences to the sight of a celebrity acting as a satirical version of a character based on his own public persona. At the end of one performance, cheered on by repeated curtain calls, Woollcott riffed off one of his character’s signature lines from the play and announced to the audience that he planned to sue the authors for $150,000.”

Those were the days…

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Distracted Drivers

In his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott described a new gadget that could bring new levels of pleasure (or danger) to the driving experience: the car radio:

The Transitone was probably the first production car radio in the U.S., and looked something like this (left image):

VACUUM TUBES are exposed under the dash of this car (left) outfitted with a Transitone radio. At right, a Crosley car radio from 1931. (radiomuseum.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s cold creme continued to land endorsements from the landed gentry, this time from 30-year-old Lady Violet Astor (née Violet Mary Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, Dame of the Order of St. John), whose hair was described “as ripe as wheat,” her skin “pink and white as a hedge rose.” Okay, I’ll try a jar…

…and for more snob appeal, advertisements from American luxury carmaker Pierce-Arrow often featured messages that linked its cars to a lineage of earlier models, suggesting their automobiles had a well-bred, timeless quality (as opposed to the novelties found in cars driven by the plebeian classes). The caption reads: “Both people and Pierce-Arrows of the former day share with today’s group the distinguished quality of the patrician”…

…the makers of Glyco “Thymoline” also drew upon the past to make a point about their soap, stating that “the girl of yesteryear had plenty of protection under sun bonnets and parasols,” whereas today’s young woman boldly races off to play golf without even bothering to put up the windshield. She’ll need Glyco to scrub off the bugs, dust and bits of gravel that will likely kick up into her face…

…One thing you notice at the end of the 20’s is the proliferation of color ads in the New Yorker, some quite lavish including this appeal from Electrolux, which depicted all of the new apartments popping up around the city powered by their gas appliances…

…and we have another lovely rendering by Carl “Eric” Erickson urging readers to smoke Camel cigarettes…

…and this ad caught my eye for its depiction of a house in the future, namely the year 1949 — you land your personal airplane on the roof and relax in your dynamic, angular furniture while a robot butler shakes up cocktails for you and your top-hatted friend…

…the house in the ad somewhat resembles this 1929 drawing by Swiss-American architect William Lescaze

…we have another ad from Knox hatters (drawn by Rea Irvin) that featured an unfashionable, portly man (Napoleon B. Niblick) being snubbed by some Westchester toffs…

…our comics are provided by C.W. Anderson

…and Peter Arno

Next Time: Let Them Eat Cake…

 

 

Generation of Vipers

I’d spotted Nancy Hoyt’s byline in the New Yorker before, but I had no idea of the joys and sorrows (mostly sorrows) that were attached to it.

April 13, 1929 cover by Rose Silver.

Nancy McMichael Hoyt was the younger sister of poet and writer Elinor Wylie, the latter a beloved figure at the New Yorker. Indeed when Wylie died suddenly on Dec. 16, 1928, the editors paid tribute by reprinting her autobiographical profile, “Portrait,” in the Dec. 29, 1929 issue:

Elinor and Nancy were the daughters of U.S. Solicitor General Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr. and Anne Morton McMichael. Both came from prominent Pennsylvania families and loomed large in Washington society. The sisters became notorious for their multiple marriages and love affairs, and it was often thought that Nancy lived in imitation of her older sister when she took on a writing career of her own.

Elinor Wylie would contribute at least a dozen poems or short fiction pieces to the New Yorker between 1925 and 1929 (three of them posthumously). Her sister Nancy would contribute three pieces of short fiction (1927-28) and one poem, “These Vanities,” published in the March 12, 1927 issue:

IMITATION OF LIFE…Nancy Hoyt (left) followed in the footsteps of her older, more successful sister, Elinor Wylie (right). The undated photo of Hoyt was taken by Sherril Schell. Wylie’s 1922 portrait was taken by her friend Carl Van Vechten. (CondeNast, alchetron)

The April 13, 1929 issue featured Hoyt’s sharp satirical piece about a fictional Southern Girl…

No doubt Hoyt drew on her own observations of Washington society and the clash of debutantes from the North and South. She continued her skewering of the Southern girl, likening her to something of a country bumpkin…

…and not very bright at that…

The last paragraph is telling, because in many ways it describes Hoyt’s own life. In her 2003 book, A Private Madness: The Genius of Elinor Wylie, Evelyn Helmick Hively wrote that Hoyt “scandalized Washington by cancelling her wedding after society guests arrived for the ceremony” (apparently Elinor helped her reach the decision). Her various love affairs and marriages provided rich material for reporters who wrote about her flings with the Earl of Donegal and and the heir to the Reynolds Tobacco fortune. The Washington Herald reported her attempt to elope to Canada with a taxi driver she had known for only ten days.

Hively observed that each member of the Hoyt family “seemed fated to flame briefly, to struggle, and too often to die tragically.” Indeed, Elinor and Nancy’s mother Anne once told a reporter that she had given birth to a “generation of vipers,” and predicted she would outlive them all. And she nearly did:

• The eldest child, Elinor Wylie, suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines. She died of a stroke on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. She was 43.

• The eldest son, Henry Martyn Hoyt, became a poet and painter. He killed himself in 1920 at age 33 by inhaling through a tube attached to a gas jet.

• Daughter Constance A. Hoyt married a German diplomat (against her family’s wishes) and became Baroness von Stumm-Halberg. She was either 33 or 34 when she committed suicide in Bavaria in 1923.

• Morton McMichael Hoyt would marry the same woman—Eugenia Bankhead (sister of actress Tallulah Bankhead)—three times. Heavy drinking ended his life in 1949, at age 50.

• Just fifteen days later Nancy Hoyt would succumb to the drink at age 47.

The family patriarch, Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr., was long gone by then, dying at age 54 in 1910. The family matriarch, Anne Morton McMichael, almost outlived them all (odd, considering that she was in ill health much of her life and often remained confined to her room). She died in her late 80s, in 1949, the same year as her two youngest children.

Top left, Henry Martyn Hoyt, Jr., U.S. Solicitor General and patriarch of the Hoyt family; in addition to Elinor Wylie and Nancy Hoyt, his children included (clockwise, from top right) the painter and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt III (in a self-portrait); Constance Hoyt (pictured riding in a car with Baron Ferdinand von Stumm-Halberg); and Morton Hoyt, seen here with his three-time wife Eugenia Bankhead. (Wikipedia, hokku.wordpress.com, theesotericcuriosa.blogspot.com, historic images.com)

And as a final, sad note (did you expect anything else?) Nancy’s daughter, Edwina Curtis, would eventually inherit the bulk of the Hoyt estate, which was quickly squandered.

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Silence is Golden

During the silent era, actress Mary Pickford was hands down the queen of the movies. Pickford and her husband, actor Douglas Fairbanks, were also the original Hollywood power couple, founding the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio and later joining forces with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith to create United Artists. Pickford was also one of the original 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the “Oscar” presenters).

AMERICA’S SWEETHEART…Mary Pickford with her signature curls, surrounded by fan mail, circa 1920. (AMPAS)

Although she was born in Canada, she was beloved in the States as a symbol of female virtue, affectionately dubbed “America’s Sweetheart.” According to writer Eileen Whitfield (Pickford: the Woman Who Made Hollywood), one silent movie reporter described Pickford as “the best known woman who has ever lived, the woman who was known to more people and loved by more people than any other woman that has been in all history.”

Also known as the “girl with the curls” for her famous ringlets, fans were shocked to find those ringlets replaced by a short bob in Pickford’s first talking film, Coquette, in which she played a reckless socialite. The New Yorker was not shocked; on the contrary, it found Pickford’s depiction of a coquette rather forced, and not altogether believeable:

THUS SPOKE MARY PICKFORD…Crowds lined up at the United Artists Theatre in Los Angeles to get a first glimpse of the “new” talking Mary Pickford in Coquette.

Not only did the New Yorker find Pickford’s performance less than plausible, but the storyline itself seemed a bit fanciful. As for the “Southern drawl” used in the dialogue, the magazine found it “almost unintelligible to Manhattan ears…”

You be the judge. Here’s a brief clip from the film:

Coquette was a box office success, and Pickford would win an Oscar for her first sound performance. Nevertheless, her best days were in the silent era, and she retired from acting in 1933.

100% MARY…(Left to Right) Matt Moore, John St. Polis, and Mary Pickford in Coquette (1929), a film directed by Sam Taylor. (Wikimedia)

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Today we associate popular songs with a particular performer or group, but in the first half of the 20th century most songs were recorded by many different artists, and such was the case with Ray Henderson’s hit “Button Up Your Overcoat” (from the musical comedy Follow Thru), recordings of which were available under three different labels by three popular artists of the day—Helen Kane, Zelma O’Neal, and Ruth Etting. As the New Yorker suggested, you could “pick your own fashions”…

PICK YOUR FASHION…Left to right, Helen Kane, Ruth Etting and Zelma O’Neal all recorded renditions of the “Button Up Your Overcoat” in 1929. (bennypdrinnon.blogspot.com/ruthettig.com/Getty)

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From Our Advertisers

Spring had sprung and so did “fashion welts” and rubber-soled Plytex shoes suitable for ship decks or leisurely strolls along Palm Beach…

…while the folks at Texaco referenced the future with dirigibles and airplanes to hawk its higher octane “premium” gasoline…

For our comics, we have this entry by C.W. Anderson, who was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, and went on to author the popular Billy and Blaze books for young readers. I know this thanks to Michael Maslin’s indispensable The New Yorker Cartoonists A-Z.

…and we close with this cartoon by John Reynolds, who contributed a total of 34 drawings to the New Yorker between 1928 and 1930…

Next Time: The So-So Soprano…