Beer Thirty

There’s a good reason why Americans celebrate National Beer Day on April 7.

April 15, 1933 cover by William Steig.

It was on that day in 1933 that the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect; after nearly 13 years of Prohibition, folks were allowed to buy and drink low-alcohol content beer. The act not only promised to wet their whistles on the hot summer days ahead, but it also signaled the eventual doom of 18th Amendment. E.B. White opened his column with musings on the Easter holiday, but soon turned his attention to the big news of the day.

THINK THIS WILL BE ENOUGH?…Workers at a New York brewery unload thousands of crates of beer, getting ready for the return of legal beer in April 1933. (
FRONT PAGE NEWS…The New York Times proclaimed the return of legal beer in this April 7, 1933 edition.
BLONDE’S BOMBSHELL…While on the other side of the Lower 48, actress Jean Harlow christened the first legal bottle of beer at midnight in Los Angeles, April 6, 1933. (Los Angeles Public Library)

In his “A Reporter at Large column,” Morris Markey looked in on a former speakeasy owner who was more than happy to go legit, and who also predicted the demise of his fellows who still lingered in the underground liquor trade. An excerpt from “Now That There’s Beer”…

CHEERS!…The first truckload of beer to leave New York exits the Jacob Ruppert Brewery in New York in 1933. (

The subject of Markey’s column explained why speakeasies would soon be a thing of the past. Markey also observed that theatre owners would soon feel the pinch as folks would forgo movies for summer evenings at a beer garden.

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No Laughing Matter

Writers and editors at The New Yorker did their best to keep things as light and witty as possible, but sometimes the headlines could not be ignored, and tragedy was acknowledged, albeit briefly. “The Talk of the Town” had this to say about history’s deadliest airship disaster:

NATURE’S FURY…The U.S. Navy’s 785-foot dirigible, the USS Akron, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean during a violent storm shortly after midnight on April 4, 1933, claiming the lives of 73 crewmen. Clockwise, from top left, the Akron on a routine flight; men in a rear control car; servicemen in the dirigible’s engine room; April 23, 1933 photo of wreckage recovered off the coast of New Jersey. Because the ship had no life vests and one rubber raft, only three crew members survived the disaster, which heralded the end the Navy’s dirigible fleet. ( Mail)

In his “Of All Things” column, Howard Brubaker had this to add:

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Alex at the Movies

It wasn’t every day you got to read a movie review by Alexander Woollcott, but he did just that in the opening lines of his “Shouts and Murmurs” column, calling Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross an “unpleasing mess drooled on to the brobdingnagian bib” of the director.

Woollcott, who doubtless related to Nero’s bacchanalian ways, singled out Charles Laughton’s campy performance as the Roman emperor.

ANIMAL HOUSE…Charles Laughton camped it up as the Emperor Nero in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross. (IMD

Besides Laughton’s performance, the pre-Code film is perhaps best known for Claudette Colbert’s revealing milk bath scene, which took several days to shoot—the powdered cow’s milk eventually turned sour, making it a very unpleasant experience for all involved.

IT STINKS…that was Alexander Woollcott’s assessment of The Sign of the Cross. Clockwise, from top left, studio poster for the film; Claudette Colbert’s famous bath scene; an actress portraying a Christian being thrown to the lions (as well as crocodiles and gorillas) was the famed burlesque dancer Sally Rand, who left little to the imagination in her uncredited appearance; an orgy scene. Although Paramount marketed the film to churches, it was attacked by the Catholic Legion of Decency: a re-release of the film was censored after the Hays Code went into effect in 1934—a “lesbian dance,” violent gladiator scenes and sequences with naked women being attacked by crocodiles were cut and wouldn’t be restored until a 1993 video release. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

As for film critic John Mosher, the remaining Hollywood fare was even worse—like The Sign of the Cross, these pictures used faith-based themes, a seemingly new trend in Hollywood scenarios, to poor effect.

Gabriel Over the White House starred Walter Huston as a politically corrupt president who, after a near-fatal car accident, comes under the divine power of the Archangel Gabriel and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln…

I SEE DEAD PEOPLE…Walter Huston and Karen Morley in Gabriel Over the White House. (TCM)

…the pre-Code drama Destination Unknown also summoned supernatural forces to tell the tale of a stranded ship saved by a stowaway who turns wine into water and heals a crippled man.

NEEDING A MIRACLE…Pat O’Brien and Betty Compson in Destination Unknown. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Considering that Adolf Hitler gave Nazi paramilitary units control of German streets in January 1933, the words “Appeasing refuge” don’t readily come to mind…

…if you liked all things German but wanted to avoid getting a jackboot to the groin, you could remain stateside, drink some 3.2 beer, and chew on some Liederkranz…

…actually this looks more preferable, especially as rendered by fashion illustrator Leslie Saalburg

…before Zillow or Craigslist you could look for some digs in the New York American, which merged with the New York Journal in 1937…

…the makers of leaded gasoline urged on a stereotypical country doctor, even though the stork seemed to have things under control…

…on to our cartoonists, Garrett Price illustrated the limits of legal beer…

…while Chon Day explored the same problem at this tea room…

…here’s a trio of The New Yorker’s early women cartoonists…Barbara Shermund

Mary Petty

…and Alice Harvey

…and we close with Al Frueh, and some brave firefighters…

Next Time: Not Worth a Dime…

Will It Play In Peoria?

Cecil B. DeMille was known for his epic films (e.g. The Ten Commandments, 1923 and 1956) and cinematic showmanship, but in 1930 he puzzled his audiences with a very weird pre-Code musical, Madam Satan.

Oct. 11, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The film centered on a wealthy couple, Angela and Bob Brooks (played by Kay Johnson and Reginald Denny). Bob is unfaithful to his wife (a common pre-Code theme), and she attempts to lure him back by disguising herself as a mysterious devil woman at a masquerade ball held aboard a dirigible. Quite a plot indeed. Here’s what the New Yorker’s John Mosher had to say about it.

PAJAMA GAMES…Lillian Roth, Roland Young, and Kay Johnson in Madam Satan. At right, Reginald Denny falls for the charms of his wife (Kay Johnson), disguised as a devil woman at a masked ball held aboard a giant dirigible. (IMDB/
AIRHEADS…Via a giant mooring mast, partygoers board a dirigible for the masquerade ball in Madam Satan. Curiously, developers of the Empire State Building (which was under construction) envisioned a similar use for the mast that would top out their tower. In reality, winds that whipped around high towers would have prevented this type of boarding. (
SOMEONE CALL THE FAA…At right, the lavish masquerade ball aboard a giant dirigible in Madam Satan. At right, the dirigible is damaged by lightning in a scene that foreshadowed the Hindenberg disaster of 1937. (
SEEMS PLAUSIBLE…In a silly ending to a silly film, partygoers float on parachutes away from the damaged dirigible. (

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Let Them Eat Cake

Somerset Maugham regarded his comic novel, Cakes and Ale, to be his favorite. The book took aim at snobs as well as at the legacy of one overrated, late-Victorian writer — a character many believe was based on the recently departed Thomas Hardy (Maugham denied the inspiration). The New Yorker had this to say about Cakes and Ale:

THROW HARDY INTO THE DUSTBIN…Somerset Maugham as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1934. (Wikipedia)

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He Meant What He Said

Howard Brubaker, in his “Of All Things” column, found humor in the words of a rising figure in German politics, you know who…

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Throw Him a Softball

The famed French artist Henri Matisse paid a visit to New York City, and according to this account in “The Talk of Town,” seemed to be seeking some peace of mind…

AN OPPOSITE VIEW…Henri Matisse struck a thoughtful pose atop a Manhattan apartment at 10 Mitchell Place in 1930. The Queensboro Bridge can be glimpsed in the background. (

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Still Barred From the Bar

We are still about three years away from the official repeal of the 18th Amendment, but as we know the partying continued in houses and speakeasies across the great city. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” wistfully recalled the days when good booze was legal:

White did find some cheer in the pro-wet platforms of the two major parties…

A GIMLET IN EVERY POT…The major political parties in 1932’s U.S. presidential race were represented by incumbent Herbert Hoover (Republican) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (Democratic). Both favored repeal of the 18th Amendment. Pictured at the center, a New Yorker cocktail, the object of E.B. White’s longing. (Wikipedia)

And while we are on the subject, we have this Wallace Morgan illustration of a lively speakeasy with the ironic caption, “The Saloon Must Go!” — referencing an old Anti-Saloon League Slogan.

You didn’t have to go to a speakeasy if you wanted a glass of wine. During Prohibition American winemakers found a lucrative loophole by selling perfectly legal concentrated grape juice (called “wine bricks”) to home brewers and bootleggers alike.

According to an article in the Smithsonian, winemakers marked the wine bricks with warnings that they were “for non-alcoholic consumption only.” However, the package would also bear a note explaining how to dissolve the brick in a gallon of water, and yet another “warning” instructing the buyer not to leave the jug in a cool cupboard for 21 days, lest it turn into wine.

Here’s an ad in the Oct. 11, 1930 New Yorker that not-so-subtly offered a selection of varietals…

Here’s what a wine brick looked like:

A wine brick from San Francisco’s Vino Sano company. The label reads: “Each Brick dissolve in one gallon of water. To prevent fermentation, add 1-10% Benzoate of Soda.” Yeah right. (

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From Our Advertisers

No doubt Prohibition caused more than a few people to take up smoking. Women adopted the habit in droves during the Roaring Twenties, and by the Depression it seemed everyone was lighting up. Advertisers explored various ways to market cigarettes, and long before the Marlboro Man made the scene, that brand pushed its product through a series of dopey handwriting and essay contests,,,

…the makers of Luckies used a combination of sex and bogus health claims to sell their products…

…cigarettes were not confined to ads by tobacco companies; here they are accessories to fine furs…

…even the New Yorker’s spot illustrations (this by Frank McIntosh) featured smokers…

…as did cartoons, such as this one by Barbara Shermund in the Oct. 4 issue…

…and we have one more ad, this one from Chrysler, which acknowledged the new world of the Great Depression, but only through use of careful euphemisms (the New Yorker editorial side practiced much of the same)…

…on to our cartoons, beginning with an exploration of city vs. country life, by Alice Harvey

…a depiction of what commuter flying was actually like in 1930, thanks to Leonard Dove

…a glimpse at modern parenting, with Helen Hokinson

…humor in a gentleman’s drawing room, courtesy Peter Arno

…and 89 years later, a hilarious update on the subject by Edward Steed in the Sept. 9, 2019 issue…

…and finally, the joys of urban life brought to us by Alan Dunn

Next Time: Ghosts of Gotham…

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.

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:

Ben Hecht (Alamy)



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:






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.

BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Criminal Encyclopedia/NY Daily News)
END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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. (

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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:


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.



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…


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


Next time: Those Restless Natives…