Big Fish, Little Fish

Battery Park’s Castle Clinton was a fort, a popular entertainment complex, and an immigration depot before the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White transformed it into the New York Aquarium in 1896.

Sept. 26, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Aquarium’s beginnings were modest, but under the direction of zoologist Charles Haskins Townsend it became one of lower Manhattan’s biggest attractions. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on its latest acquisitions, including the first display of live piranha (here spelled paranha) in America:

When the Aquarium opened it was marvel of late 19th century technology; its enormous glass tanks and pools — holding more than 300,000 gallons of water — were controlled by an elaborate behind-the-scenes operation that ensured each species had the right kind of water conditions and food to survive, at least for awhile; the Aquarium in its early days, like the Central Park Zoo we visited recently, displayed its creatures as curiosities in decidedly unnatural surroundings…

DE-NATURED…In the New York Aquarium’s early days, fish and other aquatic animals were displayed in glass tanks that lined the out walls as well as in concrete ponds below the expansive trussed ceiling. If this rendering is accurate, then these creatures, especially the whales, had miserable, short lives. (thebattery.org)

…and this is a promotion for the Aquarium you would not see today…

…and here are a few images from the early years…more than 100 years old but still not easy to look at…

DRY-DOCKED…these are images used on postcards to promote the Aquarium — the black and white ones are from 1909, the color image circa 1925-30. Clockwise, from top left, Aquarium worker poking at a manatee with a stick (yeah fella, they’re not happy, and probably dying); a crocodile gets some dinner; image common from yesteryear of a child (or groups of children) sitting on a hapless turtle or tortoise; seals in a pool that contained water but nothing else remotely similar to their natural environment. (nyheritage.org)

…it’s easy for us to pass judgment on the unfortunate actions of our forebears, but to his credit Charles Haskins Townsend, director of the Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, advocated for bans on whaling and constantly worked to improve conditions at the Aquarium…

POPULAR DESTINATION…Whether folks were visiting the Aquarium or jumping on a riverboat or ferry, Battery Park was a place to go in the early 20th century. Top and bottom right, exterior and interior views of the Aquarium. Bottom left, the care and feeding took place behind the outer walls. (wcsarchivesblog.org)

…and Aquarium staff tried their best to keep fish alive during relocation, even using train cars specially designed for the purpose…

(Popular Mechanics 1931)

…once at the Aquarium, teams were ready to put the animals into their proper places…

LONELY NO MORE…Paddlewings, the lonely penguin apparently famous enough to be mentioned in the “Talk” piece, is pictured at right in this 1931 article. (Modern Mechanics, August 1931) click to enlarge.

The end came for the Battery Park aquarium when NYC Parks Commissioner Robert Moses proposed construction of the Brooklyn–Battery Tunnel under Castle Clinton. Moses also thought the aquarium was an eyesore, and had it demolished in 1941…

(thebattery.org)

…preservationists managed to stop the demolition before the walls of Castle Clinton were razed. It is now a national monument…

Castle Clinton, circa 1970s. (Flickr)

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Flying High

Attitudes toward drunken driving — or drunken flying — were very different 89 years ago. Case in point was this “Epitaph” written by Morris Markey marking the passing of Carter Leigh, who carried the air mail while flying under the influence (Reginald Marsh contributed the portrait) …

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Exit, Stage Left

The glitzy showgirl revues continued on Broadway with George White’s Scandals, which featured such headliners as singers Ethel Merman and Rudy Vallée, and hoofer Ray Bolger. Reviewer Robert Benchley wrote that the show gave him “the feeling of having a good time,” but the same could not be said for Mae West’s The Constant Sinner; Benchley thought the glare of West’s stardom upstaged the play itself:

SIMULACRUM OF A GOOD TIME…Robert Benchley questioned his own enjoyment of George White’s Scandals of 1931; from top, left, program from the show; singers Rudy Vallée and Ethel Merman were popular stars, as were hoofer Ray Bolger (who in 1939 would portray the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz) and actress Luella Gear (photo from the 1934 play Life Begins at 8:40); chorus girls in costume during a Scandals performance. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions/gershwin.com/Pinterest)
A STAR IS WORN…Benchley thought Mae West upstaged herself in The Constant Sinner. At right, West in a publicity photo with co-star Walter Petrie. (Playbill/Heritage Auctions)

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Play Ball

Sports columnist and occasional New Yorker contributor Ring Lardner enjoyed poking fun at revered institutions including Morris Markey’s “A Reporter at Large” column. Lardner rambled through several subjects but mostly reminisced about great baseball players of the past. Two brief excerpts: 

BEDTIME STORIES…the great American sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner, circa 1930. (Chicago Tribune)

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From Our Advertisers

We have yet another somewhat misleading ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap featuring an older actress who looked deceptively young for her age…

…the Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova (1879 – 1945) was actually 52 years old when this ad appeared, but the photo featured at left was taken in early 1923, when she was 43, so in a sense the ad was somewhat truthful…

Photo of Alla Nazimova taken by Nickolas Muray on Feb. 1, 1923 for Vanity Fair magazine. (Conde Nast)

…Park Avenue would never be the same with the opening of the grand Art Deco Waldorf Astoria, at 47 stories and 625 feet, it was the world’s tallest hotel from 1931 until 1963…

…nor would the skyline at Central Park West be the same with the addition of Irwin Chanin’s modern “Majestic” and “Century” apartments that featured GE refrigerators sold by Rex Cole, who himself was keen on architecture and design…

…and who hired Raymond Hood to create distinctive refrigerator showrooms in Manhattan, Brookyn and Queens…

Rex Cole Showroom in Flushing, Queens, crowned with a replica of the GE refrigerator’s disintictive “Monitor Top.” With their spare, open plan, the modern showrooms were ahead of their time. (Museum of the City of New York, Photo by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1931)

…on to our cartoonists, we have Chon Day at ringside…

Kemp Starrett eavesdropped on some science-minded shoppers…

Garrett Price gave us a maid’s refreshing perspective on a game of chess…

Helen Hokinson found some serious talk among the younger posh set…

…and we end with another from Garrett Price, and the challenges of renting a room near Times Square…

Next Time: The Coming War…

 

Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)

I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.

ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

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Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

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Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

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Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

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Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

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From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…