Dirge for a Dirigible

There was a time when dirigibles were considered the future of transatlantic transportation. In the 1930s they could carry more passengers than any other type of aircraft while offering amenities usually associated with ocean liners such as private cabins, dining rooms and large observation decks. They were also faster than those water-borne vessels.

March 26, 1932 cover by Bela Dankovsky.

Dirigibles, however, were challenging to operate — with crew members outnumbering passengers — and sometimes they fell from the sky. Such was the fate of the USS Shenandoah during a 1925 publicity flight over Ohio. On board was the Navy’s Lt. Cmdr. Charles Emery Rosendahl (1892 – 1977), who had to act quickly when the airship encountered a severe thunderstorm. Hitting a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its gas bags, the airship was torn apart. For the March 26 “Profile,” writer Henry Pringle recounted Rosendahl’s experience:

HE LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT…Clockwise, from top left, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rosendahl, USN, circa 1930; the USS Shenandoah in pieces near Caldwell, Ohio; the airship in better days; close-up view of the wreckage. (Wikipedia/airships.net)
IT WAS A GAS…Like other other early dirigibles, the USS Shenandoah was designed for war (fleet reconnaissance) rather than passenger service. It was the first rigid airship to use a safer gas, helium, rather than hydrogen to gain lift. However, helium was scarce at the time, and the Shenandoah used almost all of the world’s reserves to fill its gas cells, which held 2,100,000 cubic feet. (fly.historicwings.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ON THE CATWALK…Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rosendahl hurried through this area while the USS Shenandoah was being torn apart in mid-air. Rosendahl was ordered out of the control car by the airship’s pilot, Cmdr. Zachery Landsdowne, to check on the Shenandoah’s oil and gas tanks. It was an order that ultimately saved Rosendahl’s life: Eight crew members in the control car, including Landsdowne, perished. In all, 14 crew members lost their lives. (airships.net)

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Untouchable Unmentionables

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White mused about one Boston store’s promotion of a line of women’s underwear as “Gandhi panties,” apparently inspired by the loincloth worn by Indian liberator Mahatma Gandhi:

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Mahatma Gandhi held numerous hunger strikes during his years of protest against India’s caste system and British Imperial rule. He is pictured here in jail in September 1932 during the second of his fasts, protesting the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste. (history.com)

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Hearst Wurst

Film critic John Mosher was not happy with the happy ending (or much else) in the William Randolph Hearst-backed Polly of the Circus, which starred Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, along with emerging star Clark Gable, who portrayed a small-town minister who risked his career for love with a trapeze artist.

JUST READ THE NAUGHTY BITS…Top image: With the backing of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies was able to bill her latest MGM film as a “Marion Davies Production.” Davies had star billing over Clark Gable in Polly of the Circus, but as his star rose in the 1930s, Davies saw her fortunes (and Hearst’s) drain away during the Depression years. Bottom image: the Reverend John Hartley (Gable) and trapeze artist Polly Fisher (Davies) “look for something hot” in the Book of Ruth. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Electric refrigerators for home use had been around for less than decade in 1932, but as more companies got into the business, the drive to distinguish one’s product from the competitor’s became keen…the distinctive “Monitor Top” GE refrigerators were touted by Rex Cole in both their ads and in the design of their showrooms…

…Allen-Ingraham, on the other hand, demonstrated how their “dual-automatic” Westinghouse could bring harmony to a party of bootleg-swilling old gents…

…the makers of Electrolux invoked the inevitable march of time and progress in promoting their “automatic” refrigerator…

…on to sundry things, the upscale British department store Fortnum & Mason employed this simple ad to demonstrate the superiority of old money over the preening lower orders…

…and in the back pages we find these cheap ads for corsets, a prep school and a shorthand lessons…

…the makers of Listerine reminded readers of the connection between their old line of antiseptic products and their new line of cigarettes…

…the Santa Fe Railroad invited travelers to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles…

…while the Missouri Pacific line promoted the wonders of Kansas City, the “Heart of America”…

…makers of the autogiro — part airplane, part helicopter — continued to promote the advantages of this supposedly easy to fly contraption…in the 1930s the autogiro was seen as the future of personal air travel, some predicting that the craft would join the automobile in many a garage…

…on to our cartoons, Alice Harvey found one man who was ready for the autogiro lifestyle…

…and Peter Arno gave us an old walrus ready to take advantage of an unsuspecting host…

……and Helen Hokinson’s “girls” also found themselves involved in a scandalous situation…

…on to the April 2, 1932 issue…

April 2, 1932 cover by Julian de Miskey.

…where this time critic John Mosher took a look at a new film (and a new film genre) — Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Weissmuller (1904-1984) was well known in the 1920s as a five-time Olympic Gold Champion swimmer, so the 28-year-old was a familiar face when he stepped into the title role. The Irish-born O’Sullivan (1911-1998) had appeared in seven films in 1930-31 before she was cast as Jane Parker in Tarzan, the Ape Man. Mosher found the film silly, but entertaining nonetheless.

THAT PRE-CODE LOOK…Before decency codes were strictly enforced in Hollywood, many early 1930s films featured scenes that were pretty racy for those times. Both Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller were scantily clad for their roles in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man. (IMDB/fanpop.com/manapop.com/YouTube)

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Cancel Me, Kate

“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was a popular song in those days of casual racism, written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown for George White’s Scandals of 1931. It was recorded by a number artists including Paul Robeson (see below) and Kate Smith — it was one of Smith’s biggest records and also the reason she was recently “cancelled” in some sports venues.

In 2019 the New York Yankees announced that Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” would no longer be played at Yankee Stadium, citing not only Smith’s version of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” but also her past performances of the song “Pickaninny Heaven.” The Philadelphia Flyers followed the Yankees example, covering up and later removing a statue of Smith outside the Wells Fargo Center.

THAT’S WHY YOU WERE CANCELLED…One of Kate Smith’s biggest early hits was her performance of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” In 2019 the Philadelphia Flyers organization covered and later removed a statue of Smith outside the Wells Fargo Center. (mprnew.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We have more inducements to travel, this time abroad and in style aboard the French Line…

…or if you were looking for something a bit more exotic, Intourist could book you passage to the Soviet Union…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with this great spot illustration by Victor De Pauw, who contributed to the New Yorker from 1928 to 1948…

William Crawford Galbraith offered some insight into the cultural tastes of the upper orders…

…while Alan Dunn illustrated the Depression’s domestic woes…

…and we have what I believe is the first appearance of William Steig’s “Small Fry” children identified as such…many more would follow, later to be collected into a popular book by the same name…

…and another by Steig of a person contemplating his life’s desire…

…and we end with James Thurber, with all of his familiar themes tied up in one drawing…

Next Time: A Return to the Nightlife…

 

Thurber’s Dogs

James Thurber became acquainted with all sorts of dogs throughout his life, and in each he found something to admire. Unlike the men and women who were bound up by silly customs or norms, the dog stood steadfast as a “sound creature in a crazy world.”

Jan. 2, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

In the Jan. 2, 1932 issue, Thurber began what would become a decades-long paean to the noble canine — an embodiment of the freedoms conventional man would never attain. An excerpt from “A Preface to Dogs”…

“So why dogs?” Adam Gopnik asked the question under the title, “A Note on Thurber’s Dogs,” in Nov. 1, 2012 issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik explains that for Thurber, the dog represented “the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs — peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance — were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners.”

STOICAL INDIFFERENCE…Clockwise, from top left, James Thurber’s illustration of a childhood pet, a terrier named “Muggs” from the story “The Dog That Bit People” (1933); photograph of the real Muggs; dogs appear in many of Thurber’s cartoons as a stoic presence among maladjusted humans; Thurber at work on one of his dogs in an undated photo. (ohiomemory.org/jamesthurber.org)

Here’s one more excerpt that gives us glimpse into a dog’s day, as related by Thurber…

We’ve seen Thurber writing about dogs before, most notably in his spoof on newspaper pet columns titled “Our Pet Department.” Here is an excerpt from his first installment in the series, which appeared in fifth anniversary issue of the New Yorker, Feb. 22, 1930:

A final note: For more on Thurber, check out New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Thurber Thursday entries at his terrific Ink Spill website.

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Choo Choo

While Thurber’s mind was on dogs, his buddy E.B. White was musing about the joys of train travel, and the hope that awaited journey’s end. Excerpts:

THIS DOESN’T SUCK AT ALL…Riding on the Great Northern Railroad in 1926. (Pinterest)

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Party Poopers

Journalist Chester T. Crowell contributed the Jan. 2 “A Reporter at Large” column by looking through the thin facade of Prohibition enforcement in New York. He tells of Prohibition agents who visit a roadside tavern for several weeks (and enjoy the beer) before finally raiding the place. Beer kegs are broken up and the door to the bar is padlocked. But all was not lost for the proprietor, who got some business advice from the raiding agents…

KEG PARTY…The New York Daily News featured this photo on June 18, 1931 with this caption: “Tears mingled with strong beer in Newark, N.J. as prohibition agents destroyed the unlawful liquor, some of which was seized in Hoboken raid.” (NY Daily News/Mashable)

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No Laughing Matter

As we move through the 1930s we’ll see more signs of the world (war) to come. Reed Johnston had some fun with the messy politics of Weimar Germany, making a parenthetical reference to the “Nazis” of the National Socialist party who would soon take control of the country…

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Upstaged

A box office and critical success, Hell Divers is considered Clark Gable’s breakout role, but the real stars were the Curtiss F8C-4 “Helldivers” that were used in filming aerial battle scenes. Critic John Mosher takes it from there…

ART IMITATES LIFE…Wallace Beery and Clark Gable played rivals onscreen and offscreen in Hell Divers. The upstart Gable disliked the veteran actor Beery, a well-known misanthrope whom many actors found difficult to work with. (IMDB)

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Yet More Diego

Art critic Murdock Pemberton had more to say about Diego Rivera’s appearance at the Museum of Modern Art, noting that Rivera “has been fortunate to be living in a liberal country (Mexico), where his propaganda could be spread upon the walls of public buildings.” Pemberton correctly surmised that Rivera would “starve” if he tried to paint similar themes in the U.S. (Indeed, in 1933 Rivera would refuse to remove an image of Lenin from a Rockefeller Center mural, and would be asked to leave the country).

I SHALL RETURN…Diego Rivera returned to New York in 1933 on a commission to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. The inclusion of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin (inset) in the work was not well-received in the Capital of Capitalism. (npr.org/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

It’s snowing in Manhattan, and you’re tired of slogging though the snow and slush — well, if you didn’t lose your shirt in the stock market, and if you didn’t need to work a steady job, then you could get away from it all and head to the “sunlit paradise” of the West Indies…

…or grab some sun time in Nassau…

…but before you go, you might want to pick up some warm-weather duds at Lord & Taylor…

…or at L.P. Hollander on East 57th…

…to ring in the New Year (yes, I’m running a little late) we kick off the cartoons with William Crawford Galbraith

Gardner Rea showed us how old money and no money don’t mix…

Helen Hokinson gave us a double entendre to go along with car trouble at a service station…

…communication also seemed to be a challenge for this chap in a William Steig cartoon…

…and we end where we began, with the great James Thurber and the looming battle between the sexes…

Next Time: Babylon Berlin…

A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

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Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

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Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

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Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

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Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

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And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…