The Last Summer

Winding down the last summer of the 1920s — an unusually hot one — one detects subtle changes in the New Yorker’s mood; weary from the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties, a bit more mature, and more confident in its voice thanks to the regular writings of James Thurber, E.B. White and Lois Long and copious cartoons and illustrations by such notables as Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson that gave the magazine a distinctively modern feel as it headed into the 1930s.

Aug. 10, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt; Aug. 17 cover by Peter Arno.

The exuberance associated with the rapidly changing skyline was still there, however, as the Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” speculated on the race for the world’s tallest building. The article not only anticipated an architect’s sleight of hand, but also a Zeppelin docking station that in the end would top the world’s tallest building:

As it turned out, William Van Alen did not have to compete against himself, the commission for One Wall Street instead going to Ralph Walker, who would design a beautiful art deco landmark that, at 50 stories, would not vie for the title of the world’s tallest building. Unbeknownst to the New Yorker, and perhaps Van Alen, the challenger would instead be 40 Wall Street, which would hold the crown as world’s tallest for about a month. Thanks to some sleight of hand (see caption below) the Chrysler building would quickly surpass 40 Wall Street and hold the title for just eleven months, bested in the end by the Empire State Building (which would sport a “Zeppelin superstructure”).

COMPENSATING FOR SOMETHING?…40 Wall Street (left) vied with the Chrysler Building for the title of the world’s tallest building. The 927-foot 40 Wall Street would claim the title in late April 1930. One month later, the Chrysler building would sprout a needle-like spire (secretly constructed inside the building) bringing its total height to 1,046 feet. The builders of 40 Wall Street cried foul and claimed that their building contained the world’s highest usable floor, whereas the Chrysler’s spire was strictly ornamental and inaccessible. Less than a year later the point was made moot when the Empire State Building soared above them both. (Wikipedia/The Skyscraper Museum)
ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…Clockwise, from top left, progression of designs for the Chrysler Building; the building’s architect, William Van Alen; drawing from Popular Science Monthly (Aug. 1930) revealed the inner workings of the spire’s clandestine construction; Zeppelin docking station for the Empire State Building as imagined in a composite (faked) photograph. At 1,250 feet, the wind-whipped mooring mast proved not only impractical, but downright dangerous. In September 1931 a dirigible briefly lashed itself to the mast in 40 mph winds, and two weeks later the Goodyear Blimp Columbia managed to deliver a stack of Evening Journals to a man stationed on the tower. Contrary to the faked photograph, no passengers ever transferred from the tower to a Zeppelin. (Skyscraper City/Wikipedia/NY Times)

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What, Me Worry?

The famously flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker lived the easy life during his initial years as Hizzonner, riding a booming economy, partying with the rich and famous (while flaunting Prohibition laws), carousing with his mistress (Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton) and sleeping until noon. When reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia challenged Walker’s reelection bid in 1929, Walker left the dirty work to his Tammany Hall cronies and continued to charm the public, and the New Yorker. The Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” observed:

IT’S EASY BEING ME…Mayor Jimmy Walker accompanied actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
I HAVE MY EYE ON YOU…Reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia (right) detested Jimmy Walker and his Tammany cronies, but that wasn’t enough to get him elected in 1929. The Great Depression would soon turn the tables. (Wikipedia)

Howard Brubaker, in his Aug. 17 “Of All Things” column, suggested that La Guardia had a zero chance of getting elected. Just three years later, Walker would resign amid scandal and flee to Europe. La Guardia, on the other hand, would be elected to the first of his three terms as mayor in 1933, riding the wave of the New Deal.

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Peek-A-Boo

Politics might have been business as usual, but in the world of fashion the vampish hat styles associated with flappers were giving way to a new rolled-brim look that seemed to suggest an aviator’s helmet. In her Aug. 17 fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long reported:

FACING THE FUTURE…Vampish hats of 1928, pictured at top, gave way to the rolled-brim or flare look of 1929. (Images gleaned from magazine/catalog images posted on Pinterest)

Long seemed to welcome the idea that women should once again bare their foreheads…

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Twain Wreck

Jumping back to the Aug. 10 issue, “The Talk of the Town” reported on the possible remodeling or demolition of a house once occupied by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. The house in question was a lavish old mansion built by Henry Brevoort, Jr. in 1834, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. Twain lived in the house from 1905 to 1908, and it was there that Twain’s biographer Albert Paine conducted interviews with the author and wrote the four-volume Mark Twain, a Biography; The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. When millionaires abandoned their Fifth Avenue mansions in the 1920s and high-rise apartments took their place, there was pressure to either convert an old mansion like the Breevoort house at 21 Fifth Avenue to apartments or demolish it altogether.

LOOKING GOOD AFTER A CENTURY…At left, Berenice Abbott took this photograph of No. 21 Fifth Avenue in 1935. At right, in a close-up shot from the same period, the 1924 plaque from the Greenwich Village Historical Society is visible on the side of the house. (Museum of the City of New York/Greenwich Village Historical Society)
A NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…A proposed 1929 remodeling (left) moved the front door of the old Brevoort mansion to the center and lowered it to street level. At right, today the 1955 Brevoort apartment house occupies the site. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Greenwich Village Historical Society did what it could to save the house, and in 1924 affixed a bronze plaque to a side wall noting that both Twain and Washington Irving were once occupants. When the house was slated for demolition in 1954, the Society appealed to New Yorkers to raise the $70,000 needed to move the building, but only a fraction of that amount was secured. No. 21 was demolished in 1954 along with the rest of the houses on that block.

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Charles Edward Chambers was an American illustrator probably best known for his Chesterfield ads, although he also illustrated stories for a number of popular magazines from the early 1900s until his death in 1941. The Aug. 10 “Talk of the Town” looked in on his work with model Virginia Maurice:

QUICK…THROW THAT MAN A CIGARETTE!…Examples of Charles Edward Chambers’ Chesterfield ads from 1929 featuring model Virginia Maurice. Note that Maurice is wearing the latest “rolled brim” hat style in the upper image. (Pinterest)
HIS NONSMOKING SECTION…A 1919 Harper’s cover illustration by Charles Edward Chambers. (Wikipedia)

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Mama’s Boy

Lou Gehrig rivaled Babe Ruth as a top Murderer’s Row slugger for the 1929 Yankees, yet he couldn’t be more opposite in his lifestyle. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, Gehrig was completely devoted to mom (pictured below in 1927). Niven Busch Jr. submitted this profile of Gehrig for the Aug. 10 issue. Excerpts:

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After appearing as Al Jolson’s dying son in The Singing Fool (1928), the child actor Davey Lee returned to the screen for yet another Jolson weeper, 1929’s Say It With Songs. Once again portraying Jolson’s son—this time crippled and rendered dumb after being hit by a truck—he miraculously recovers at the end of the film. The New Yorker wasn’t having any of this sentimental treacle, especially served up for a second time…

LET’S PRAY FOR A BIG BOX OFFICE…Davey Lee and Al Jolson in Say It With Songs. (IMDB)

…and the magazine hoped for something a bit less somber from Jolson in the future, suggesting that he “give the tragic muse the air”…

In the same issue of the New Yorker, this advertisement touted Jolson’s recording of “Little Pal” from Say It With Songs (note the blackface image of Jolson—his unfortunate trademark back in the day)…

…happily, there were other movies that offered less schmaltzy diversions, including Norma Shearer’s comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, in which Shearer portrayed the jewel thief Fay Cheyney…

OH BASIL YOU ANIMAL…Theatre card for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. (IMDB)

…often cast as a heavy in silent films, it was the “talkies” that made William Powell a star, his pleasant voice more suited to a hero or leading man than a villain. In The Greene Murder Case, Powell portrayed amateur detective Philo Vance, a role that he played in another 1929 release, The Canary Murder Case (originally filmed as a silent in 1928), both based on mystery novels by S.S. Van Dine. Powell would portray Philo Vance in three more films from 1930 to 1933 until he took on the role of another amateur detective, Nick Charles, in 1934’s The Thin Man (a role he would reprise five times from 1936 to 1947)…

WHODUNNIT? YOUDUNNIT!…William Powell as detective Philo Vance, Florence Eldridge as Sibella Greene, and Jean Arthur as Ada Greene in 1929’s The Greene Murder Case. (IMDB)
KEEPING IT QUIET…William Powell as Philo Vance and Louise Brooks as “the Canary,” a scheming nightclub singer, in The Canary Murder Case. Brooks was a huge star in the silent era and the iconic flapper. According to IMDB, the film was shot as a silent in 1928, but producers decided to rework it as a more profitable “talkie.” When Brooks refused to return from Germany (where she was filming Pandora’s Box) to dub the movie, Paramount spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound film, although later productions made by Brooks proved this to be wrong. Actress Margaret Livingston ultimately supplied Brooks’ voice for Canary. 

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From Our Advertisers

We look at some advertisements from the August 17 issue, including this one from Past Blue Ribbon. Note that nowhere in the ad is the word “beer” used, this being a “near-beer” with less than 1% alcohol content by volume. In addition to making cheese (a Velveeta-like product), Pabst hoped to keep its company alive by selling this “brew” during the unusually hot summer of 1929…

…and with that blazing sun advertisers also promoted a number of face creams and powders to those “enjoying the sunny outdoor life,” including this two-page spread from Richard Hudnut and Poudre Le Débutclick to enlarge

…the outdoor life could also be enjoyed in a convertible Packard 640, a car that was a cut above a Lincoln or Cadillac, and was considered by some to be America’s answer to the Rolls Royce…

A 1929 Packard 640 Convertible. This particular model can be had today for about $130,000. (Hemmings Motor News)

…I found this ad in the back pages interesting for its crude design yet overt appeal to snobbishness with this haughty pair…

…and here is what the Park Lane looked like when it opened in 1924…

Circa 1924 advertisement from the Sargent lock and hardware company touting its fixtures in the new Park Lane hotel apartments. At right, circa 1924 image from The American Architect depicting the Park Lane’s dining room. The building is long gone, razed some time in the 1960s to make way for an office tower. (Pinterest)

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This week’s featured illustration is by Constantin Alajalov, who depicted a summer scene from the Southampton Beach Club…click to enlarge…

…our cartoonists from the Aug. 10 issue include Helen Hokinson, who looked at the challenges of Americans abroad…

I. Klein observed the changing mores of movie houses (a couple of “damns” were apparently uttered in the talking pictures of 1929)…

…and Leonard Dove offered up a double entendre of sorts…

…cartoons for the Aug. 17 issue included a peek behind the scenes at a motivational speaker courtesy Peter Arno

Kindl had some fun with the juxtaposition of a matron and a flapper hat…

…and for reference, the cloche hat called a “Scalawag” was featured in this ad by Knox in the March 30, 1929 New Yorker

Garrett Price portrayed the antics of an ungrateful trust fund brat, who probably did not have that million dollars after the market crash…

…and this fellow, depicted by Mary Petty, who doubtless would be less nonchalant come Oct. 28, or what we know as “Black Monday”…

Next Time: Hooray for Hollywood…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

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He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

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Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

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Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…