Race to the Sky

Almost 90 years after the lights went out on the Roaring Twenties, our collective imagination of New York City still harks back to that time…the sights and sounds of nightclubs and speakeasies and Broadway lights set to the tune of the Jazz Age.

Oct. 12, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

And no wonder, since that decade made the city what it is today. Changing social mores, along with labor-saving electrical appliances and the ubiquitous automobile, altered the tempo of life. And this quickened pace was also reflected in the built environment, old landmarks reduced to rubble while gleaming skyscrapers rose up in their place seemingly overnight. A Victorian edifice like the Waldorf-Astoria — little more than 30 years old — seemed positively ancient to Jazz Age New Yorkers, who unceremoniously knocked it down to make way for what would become the city’s most iconic landmark.

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) sensed that something big was on the horizon with his regular “Sky Line” updates on the city’s “tallest-building-in-the-world” contest. In the Oct. 12, 1929 issue he looked on admiringly as the Chrysler Building’s distinctive dome began to take shape:

IT’LL BE A SURPRISE…The Chrysler Building still lacked its gleaming art deco dome in this photo taken in the fall of 1929. At left is the Chanin Building, completed earlier that year. (adamunderhill.wordpress.com)

Chappell observed that the Chrysler Building’s claim as the world’s tallest would be short-lived, as plans for the Waldorf-Astoria site called for a much taller structure…

DOOMED…The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel (left), completed in 1897, was scarcely more than 30 years old when it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The former governor of New York, Al Smith (inset) led the corporation that knocked down the old hotel and erected the world’s tallest building on the site. Demolition of the hotel began on October 1, 1929 (images at right). In his 2014 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, John Tauranac observes the demolition was an arduous process, as the hotel had been constructed using more rigid material than what was found in earlier buildings. Those materials — granite, wood, and metals such as lead, brass, and zinc — were not in high demand. Most of the wood was deposited into a woodpile on nearby 30th Street or burned in a swamp. Other materials, including the granite and bronze, were dumped into the Atlantic near Sandy Hook, NJ. (New York Historical Society/New York Public Library Digital Gallery)
RISING FROM THE RUBBLE…The Empire State Building under construction in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 1,250 foot (1,454 with antenna) building would claim the title as the world’s tallest. It was something of a definitive victory, as the building held that record for nearly 40 years. (travelandleisure.com)

Although Al Smith’s building seemed assured to win the “world’s tallest” title, another giant was taking shape on the drawing boards…

LAND OF THE GIANTS…City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (left), now known as 20 Exchange Place, was originally designed in 1929 to be the world’s tallest building at 846 feet, but the realities of the Depression brought it down to a more modest 741 feet, making it the fourth-tallest building in New York when it was completed in 1931. At right, the 22-year-old Century Theatre on Central Park West was demolished to make way for Irwin Chanin’s Century Apartments, also completed in 1931. (Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com)

…while we are on the subject of skyscrapers, the New Yorker reprinted this illustration by Andre De Schaub to fill in a space at the bottom of page 54 in the Oct. 12 issue…

…the drawing originally appeared in the magazine three years earlier, as a cartoon in the October 16, 1926 issue. It included a caption: “High position on Wall Street” (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill for helping me track this one down)…

As the demolition crews picked apart the old Waldorf, E.B. White wondered why more fanfare wasn’t attached to such occasions, whether they be demolitions or ribbon-cuttings…

NEEDS MORE HOOPLA…Al Smith with his wife Catherine Dunn Smith, and two of his grandchildren at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building, May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the building by pressing a button in the White House that turned on the building’s lights (it was merely symbolic; they were actually turned on by some unknown maintenance worker in New York). (Museum of the City of New York)

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A Novel Idea

My last post featured a brief excerpt of an Oct. 5 theater review by Robert Benchley, who sized up Elmer Rice’s new play, See Naples and Die. Rice pops up again in the Oct. 12 issue, this time as the author of A Voyage to Purilia, the first novel serialized in the New Yorker. The novel was a satire on the silent film industry, set in the fictional land of Purilia. Here is the first page of the piece, with illustrations provided by Peter Arno:

SENDING UP THE SILENTS…Elmer Rice in 1920; his satirical novel about the silent film industry, A Voyage to Purilla, was serialized in the New Yorker in 1929 and published the following year. It was re-published in the 1950s as a science fiction novel. (Wikipedia/Amazon)

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Siren Song

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes trained his discerning eye on the famed torch singer and speakeasy denizen Helen Morgan, attempting to understand the hard-living singer’s allure…

Helen Morgan, circa 1930. (masterworksbroadway.com)

RIGHT AT HOME…Helen Morgan made the draped-over-the-piano look of a torch singer her signature style. (Pinterest.UK)
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY…Helen Morgan (left) as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway cast of Show Boat, 1927. It was her best-known role. At right, Morgan in Applause, 1929. (Pinterest/IMDB)

Seldes struggled to understand Morgan’s appeal, which seemed to draw from an assemblage of personas…

PLUMBING EMOTIONAL DEPTHS…Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, 1935. (IMDB)

Seldes concluded that Morgan belonged with other artistic greats in her ability to create a sense of expectancy…

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The Invention of Distracted Driving

Writing in his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott noted the advent of the car radio, a “new complication” to an “already over-elaborate existence.” Note that Trott viewed the car radio as something to be listened to while parked — car radios were fairly controversial back then, akin to driving while texting today.

EASY TO INSTALL…New Yorker automotive critic Nicholas Trott observed that cars were now being wired to receive radio sets (you still had to buy one and install it yourself). The system above featured battery-powered vacuum tubes, a dash-mounted dial and mono speaker. (hemmings.com)

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From Our Advertisers

To the refined owner of a Pierce-Arrow, a car radio would have been a crass novelty. After all, your driver was there to drive, and listen to your orders…

…unlike the Pierce-Arrow, which took pride in its heritage, the folks at Chrysler were known for their forward-thinking in design and technical innovation…

…on to some of the back page ads, we find appeals to flee the oncoming winter and escape to the golden sands of Waikiki…note the second ad, and its rather democratic invitation…

…and then we have the ads that hoped to catch the eye of the grasping Francophile, with delicacies from Louis Sherry or mock bubbly from the makers of applesauce…the second ad is particularly heartbreaking, the copy writer trying his or her best to conjure the glamour of Champagne from a bottle of apple juice. Zut!…

…fake Champagne isn’t for you? Well Leonard Dove offers us a salesman doing his best to sell a bottle of mock gin…

…returning to the ads, here’s one more from the back pages that references Harold Ross’s original prospectus for his magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The ad is for Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden, where the art of burlesque got its start. Despite the cheapness of the ad and the implied salaciousness, uptown New Yorkers loved “slumming” at Minsky’s burlesque, including artists and writers (Hart Crane even wrote a poem called “National Winter Garden”). No doubt a few New Yorker staffers found their way inside as well…

Clockwise from top left, Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden; a 1920’s burlesque performer; a ticket for two to the show. (New York Post/Amazon/Pinterest)

…on to the illustrators and cartoonists, a nice street scene by Reginald Marsh

John Held Jr. contributed one of his famed “woodcuts” to the Oct. 12 issue. Held was an old childhood friend of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. It was Ross who encouraged Held to deviate from his popular flapper caricatures — he recalled how his friend had produced clever woodcuts in high school, and wanted something similar for his magazine…

A John Held Jr. illustration for Life magazine, 1927. (Library of Congress)

Peter Arno went behind the scenes at a posh nightclub (a setting Arno was very familiar with)…

Helen Hokinson found confusion at the elections…

Perry Barlow offered up this sweet slice of family life…

…and Denys Wortman illustrated the power of the pen…

Next Time: City of Glass…

On the Flatfoot Beat

In 1929, some of New York’s Finest also enjoyed working at one of the finest police headquarters to be found anywhere.

July 20, 1929 cover by Leonard Dove. Note the construction worker’s whoopee cap—a popular hat among laborers, especially auto mechanics, in the 1920s and 30s. Hardhats did not come into general use until the late 1930s and 1940s. In popular culture, the whoopee cap was worn by the gas station attendant “Goober” on the Andy Griffith Show. The character “Jughead” also sported one in the Archie comic book series.

NYPD’s elegant headquarters at 240 Centre Street, designed by architects Hoppin & Koen, were built in 1909 to serve a newly consolidated police department charged with overseeing the city’s five boroughs (which had been united a decade earlier). Made of Indiana limestone, the building included 75 basement cells, a drill room, and a gymnasium.

VROOM VROOM…New York City motorcycle police, circa 1929. (Pinterest)

Writing for the July 20, 1929 “Reporter at Large” column, Niven Busch, Jr. looked in on a day in the life of the 20-year-old headquarters:

WHERE THE ACTION IS…Clockwise, from top left: Postcard depicting the new police headquarters at 240 Centre Street, built in 1909 to serve the newly consolidated five-borough police department; a woman in a cell at the Tenderloin station, probably similar to the cells described in Busch’s article; prisoner posing for a mug shot; the building’s Rogues Gallery. All images from 1909. (Ephemeral New York/Library of Congress (3)) click to enlarge images

Busch described the morning routine of lining up prisoners in the gymnasium for their mug shots…

…and how confiscated weapons were stored, and periodically dumped into the Narrows…

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA…Weapons seized in Chinatown by the NYPD in 1922. The police periodically dumped their inventory of seized weapons into the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. (NYPD Public Records)

Busch also described the methods used by “drug peddlers,” and the prevalence of drug use among perps:

Where detectives gathered and where prisoners were once processed is now home to luxury condos in a posh district called “Nolita” (although some folks still call the area “Little Italy”)…

CRIME DOES NOT PAY?…The 1909 Police Headquarters Building at 240 Centre Street was remodeled into luxury co-op apartments in 1988. A contemporary photo of the lobby gives some idea of the elegance of the old HQ. Adding to that elegance, the area surrounding the building is no longer “Little Italy.” Rather, it is surrounded by posh shops in an area now known as “Nolita.” (street easy.com)
Another view of the sumptuous lobby at 240 Centre Street. (realtor.com)

…and in the gymnasium where hardened criminals once lined up for mugshots we now find a four-bedroom condo that has been priced as high as $31 million (but now valued at about half that amount)…

Architect Charles Gwathmey designed this 6,600-square-foot condo in what was once the police gymnasium—which also functioned as the room where mugshots were taken. On and off the market since 2008, at one point the asking price was $31 million. (6sqft.com)

…and at the top of the building, a 5,500-square-foot penthouse can be found in the central clock tower. Spanning four stories and including two kitchens, a media room, a library, an elevator, the space was once owned by Calvin Klein

The penthouse at the top of the old police headquarters spans four stories. It has been priced as high as $40 million. (Architectural Digest)

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Before Bow Bowed Out

One of the biggest stars of the silent film era, Clara Bow (1905-1965) made a successful transition to the “talkies,” thanks in part to her huge and loyal following. But as the Roaring Twenties slowly lost its fizz, one of its biggest icons also seemed a bit flat in the new age of sound motion pictures. And indeed, Bow herself would walk away from it all two years later, retiring to her Nevada ranch at the age of 25. In the July 20 issue, the New Yorker reviewed Bow’s first talking picture, Dangerous Curves:

Clockwise, from top left, Kay Francis and Clara Bow as circus performers in 1929’s Dangerous Curves; Bow with clown in publicity shot for the movie; promotional poster; with co-star Richard Arlen, who also appeared with Bow in the 1927 romantic war picture, Wings. (Pinterest)

And while we are on the topic of celebrity actors, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959),a prominent member of the famed, multigenerational Barrymore acting family…

“Talk” mentioned Barrymore’s children, including an “oldest son, Russell,” but there is no mention of such a child in any records. My best guess is that her oldest son, Samuel, went by his father’s name—Russell Griswold Colt. Barrymore and Colt divorced in 1923, and she never remarried…

Clockwise, from top left, Ethel Barrymore circa 1930; Siblings John Barrymore (standing) Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel with John’s son, John Barrymore Jr, who was the father of Drew Barrymore (inset); cover of program for Scarlet Sister Mary; Ethel with her children Samuel Peabody Colt, Ethel Barrymore Colt and John Drew Colt in the 1930s. (crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/Playbill/Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with an “open seat poncho” offered by B. Altman to those unfortunate souls who were relegated to the rumble seat. I am perplexed by this feature in some early autos—it looks kind of fun if you’re a kid, but I can’t imagine a worse place to sit in a car. Not only are you open to the elements, but you’re also subject to peltings by dust, gravel, rocks and other road debris, not the mention the exhaust your sucking into your lungs sitting near the tailpipe. And then you are positioned over the car’s rear axle—must have been a chiropractor’s dream…

…and that exhaust you were breathing likely contained tetraethyl lead, which helped to eliminate the “knock” in your engine…

…perhaps a better way to travel—if you could afford it—was a combination of rail and air, a service supervised by a “staff of experts” headed by none other than Charles Lindbergh

…when we think of the cigarette ads of yore, the “Marlboro Man” typically comes to mind. But Marlboro wasn’t the first to trade on the macho image of the working cowboy. That honor goes to the makers of menthol-cooled Spud cigarettes…

…and how was Marlboro being marketed at this time? Well, they were still exploiting young women who had been conned into participating in a “handwriting contest”…

…as for the makers of Lucky, they continued to get endorsements from some of the biggest celebrities of the day. In this ad we have English actress, singer and dancer Gertrude Lawrence (1898 – 1952). I have to say the drawing does not resemble her much at all…

SHE REALLY DID REACH FOR A LUCKY…Gertrude Lawrence enjoying a smoke with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr in 1939 (photo by Dorothy Wilding); a 1932 portrait of Lawrence by Paul Tanqueray; Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives, 1931 (pinterest.co.uk/Wikipedia)
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…our comics are courtesy of Denys Wortman…

…and G. Wright…

Next Time: Ride of the Century…

 

The So-So Soprano

Although its founding editor, Harold Ross, was raised in the rude surroundings of a Colorado mining town and often displayed the manners of a backwoodsman, the New Yorker nevertheless looked down its sophisticated nose at most anything west of the Hudson, and the middle west was reserved for particular ridicule in its homespun piety and small city boosterism.

April 20, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

Enter one Marion Talley, a child prodigy from the tiny town of Nevada, Missouri. After appearing in a lead role at age 15 for the Kansas City Grand Opera, excited civic leaders raised enough money to send Talley to New York to study voice. Four years later (February 1926) she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Gilda in Rigoletto — at that time the youngest prima donna to appear on the Met stage. A delegation of Kansas City’s two hundred leading citizens (including the mayor) travelled to New York via special train to attend the performance. Adding to the spectacle, a noisy telegraph machine was set up backstage so Talley’s father could send dispatches back home during the performance. Writing in his “A Reporter at Large” column for the New Yorker’s Feb. 27, 1926 issue, Morris Markey scoffed at the hype and Babbitry on display:

THE MANY PHASES OF MARION…Clockwise, from top left, 18-year-old Marion Talley in 1925 in a detail of an image that appeared on the cover of Time; Talley in 1927 (detail of a portrait by Edward Steichen); an autographed portrait dated May 1936; with co-star Michael Bartlett in her only movie, Follow Your Heart (1936); promoting Ry-Krisp crackers, sponsor of her NBC radio show, 1937. (Getty/famousfix.com/imdb.com/mnopedia.org)

The New Yorker (via E.B. White in “Notes & Comment”) caught up with Talley more than three years later in the April 20, 1929 issue, her short career seemingly over, her voice perhaps destined for nothing more than “hog-calling”…

When Talley’s Met contract was not renewed for the 1929 season, she announced her plans to retire to a wheat farm in Kansas (hence the hog calling reference). She did, however, try to revive her career on concert tours and then on her own NBC Radio program (1936-1938), sponsored by Ry-Krisp. She made one film, the 1936 musical Follow Your Heart, but after its tepid reception the 30-year-old Talley decided to retire from show business.

ONE MORE TRY…Testimonial ads promoting weight reduction usually signal the end of a career, and for Marion Talley her Ry-Krisp diet endorsement was no exception. (imdb)

How good a singer was Marion Talley? We will never really know, but you can get some sense of her style and range from this 1927 Vitaphone short (the Vitaphone sound method synchronized the film with what was essentially a record player):

Talley married twice — to pianist Michael Rauchelsen (1932–1934) and to music critic Adolph Eckstein (1935–1942), the latter with whom she had a daughter, Susan. Talley died in 1983 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Dark Clouds on the Horizon

The April 20, 1929 “Talk of the Town” made passing mention of a man who would be instrumental in the stock market crash later that year—National City Bank President Charles E. Mitchell:

The “Talk” item references a $25 million advance Mitchell offered to stock market traders who were getting the yips in an overheated market. This happened after a “mini crash” on March 25, 1929, when the Federal Reserve told its banks to withhold all loans to finance securities. Mitchell’s announcement apparently reassured the public enough to stop the panic, but in reality it only delayed the inevitable—a major market crash brought on in large part by the over-selling of securities by Mitchell’s bank.

RUNAWAY BULL…Charles E. Mitchell’s reckless overselling of securities played a large role in the October 1929 stock market crash. Arrested and indicted for tax evasion in 1933, Mitchell would be acquitted of criminal charges but would end up paying a million dollars to the U.S. government in a civil settlement. At right, Walker’s stately townhouse on Fifth Avenue, now home to the French consulate. (geni.com/daytonian in manhattan)

The “Talk” item continued with this observation on the Panic of 1907, and how banker J.P. Morgan had also offered $25 million to bring the market back to earth:

PANIC ATTACK…banker J.P. Morgan (left) used a pile of money to calm the stock market during the Panic of 1907. His son, J.P. Morgan Jr., (right) would try to do the same following the October 1929 crash, when he and other bankers attempted to prevent a depression by purchasing some overpriced blue chip stock. As we know, their actions had little effect. (Library of Congress)

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Funny Girl

One of Broadway’s biggest stars in the 1920s, Fanny Brice (1891-1951) was profiled by Niven Busch Jr. in the April 20 issue. In addition to her work with the Ziegfeld Follies and other stage productions, by 1929 the comedian, singer and actress had recorded two-dozen songs and appeared in the 1928 film, My Man. Brice’s star would continue to rise in the 1930s and 40s, especially on the radio portraying the bratty toddler “Baby Snooks.” Here are the opening lines of the profile, which included a caricature of Brice by Miguel Covarrubias:

Top right, caricature of Fanny Brice that accompanied the New Yorker profile, drawn by Miguel Covarrubias. Below, publicity photo of Brice as Baby Snooks, 1938. (Photofest)

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From its very beginnings comic verse played an important role in the pages of the New Yorker. The subjects of my previous blog post (Generation of Vipers), sisters Elinor Wylie and Nancy Hoyt, both contributed comic poems to the magazine, as did Clarence Knapp, a former mayor of Saratoga, New York, who also wrote prose pieces on that city’s famed horse racing scene. According to Judith Yaross Lee (Defining New Yorker Humor, p. 354), Knapp was a New Yorker insider who penned a total of 14 mock-melodramatic “sob ballads” between 1927 and 1930. Lee observes that Knapp’s ballads followed a fixed formula, two 16-line stanzas followed by eight-line refrains, that “joked about present social values by invoking past forms.”

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They Loved a Parade

After the passing of literary giant Victor Hugo in 1885 (his funeral attracted two million mourners), Paris became known for its spectacular funeral processions. So when famed French general and (WWI) Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch died on March 20, 1929, the City of Light turned out in droves to say goodbye. On hand to report the scene was the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, aka Genêt:

A PARIS FAREWELL…The Tricolor-draped coffin of Marshal Ferdinand Foch is escorted by the Allied Commanders from the Great War (WWI) during the funeral procession. The American General John J. Pershing can be seen marching alongside the catafalque in the center of the photo. (Associated Press)

By Flanner’s account, Foch’s send-off easily matched Hugo’s in terms of crowd size:

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The Art of Smoking

Cigarette manufacturers used a variety of marketing techniques to promote their tobacco products. During the late 1920s and early 30s R.J. Reynolds sought to attract more women smokers through a series of stylish ads for its Camel brand that evoked a softly elegant world. These ads were illustrated by Carl Erickson (1891–1958), a fashion artist whose work was widely seen in Vogue and in promotions for Coty cosmetics. This ad appeared in the April 20 issue of the New Yorker:

While studying at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, Erickson was nicknamed “Eric,” a name he later used to sign his works. Also a successful portrait artist, Erickson lived part of his professional life in France (1920 to 1940) with his wife, the fashion illustrator Lee Creelman. Below are several examples of Erickson’s Camel work, including two back page illustrations from Delineator, a women’s fashion magazine that featured Butterick sewing patterns.

Clockwise from top, left, ad from Delineator, July 1930; 1929 ad from unknown source; unknown date and source; Carl “Eric” Erickson at work circa 1950; ad from the Delineator, July 1929. (Delineator/fashionising.com/periodpaper.com)

And From Our Other Advertisers…

With our Cuba relations once again eroding, let’s look back 89 years to a time when affordable, care-free living could be yours in sunny Havana…

…or in the days before foam rubber, “ozonized” animal hair gave bounce to your rugs…

…or the modestly well-off could contemplate an apartment on Park Avenue…

View from a 16th floor condo at 784 Park Avenue, yours today for a cool $8 million. (triumphproperty.com/stribling.com)

Our cartoons come courtesy of Garrett Price (1895-1979), who would contribute hundreds of cartoons as well as 100 covers during his more than 50 years with the New Yorker. An excellent look at Price’s life and work can be found in The Comics Journal

Garrett Price, circa 1918, and one of his New Yorker covers from May 21, 1949. (The Comics Journal)

Denys Wortman (1887-1958) looked in on a bookseller with a “spoiler” problem. From 1924 to 1954 Wortman drew the nationally syndicated comic strip Metropolitan Movies for the New York World. The beautifully drawn strip offered a naturalistic portrayal of daily life in New York City…

Denys Wortman at work in an undated photo. At left, an example from his Metropolitan Movies comic strip, dated May 11, 1932. (New York World/New York Times)

…and John Reynolds looked in on the challenges of the architecture profession. Reynolds contributed 34 drawings to the New Yorker from 1928 to 1930.

Next Time: Hello Molly…