One of the challenges in researching old New Yorker magazines is the frequent use of pseudonyms or simple initials at the end of columns and reviews. With enough digging I can usually determine the nom behind the plume.
Such is not the case with the New Yorker’s film critic of the late 1920s, who signed reviews “O.C.” It would be good to know a little about this person, since he or she held strong opinions about the condition of American cinema. I will continue to dig.
O.C.’s review in the April 7, 1928 issue concerned the release of We Americans, a film based on a Broadway play of the same name. Directed by Edward Sloman, it focused on the trials and tribulations of three first-generation American families: The Jewish Levines, the German Schmidts and the Italian Albertinis. The film followed each family through trial, tribulation and sacrifice as they left behind the Old World and joined the great “Melting Pot.”
In one of the storylines, the Levines lose a son, Phil, to the wartime trenches of France. In losing his life, Phil saves the life of the socially prominent Hugh Bradleigh, who in the end falls in love with Phil’s sister, Beth. In the film’s sentimental ending, the Levines and the Bradleighs meet one another for the first time at wedding of Hugh and Beth.
O.C. would have none of it:
Yes, this picture got under the reviewer’s skin. Now for the coup de grace:
Over in the book review section, Dorothy Parker was also experiencing heartburn over the latest work of that all-American man of letters, Sinclair Lewis.
Now that Parker had our attention regarding her misgivings of the future Nobel Laureate, she abandoned the polite prose and went in for the kill:
Wooden as the plaque itself
The New Yorker’s Lindbergh watch continued, this time at a ceremony during which the Woodrow Wilson Foundation presented its medal and $25,000 prize to Charles Lindbergh for his “contributions to international friendship” (in retrospect an ironic award, since Lindbergh would later become the spokesman for isolationism during the fascist terrors of the 1930s). The ceremony was a dull affair, but thanks to the magic of media it no doubt looked like a jolly time…
Better than iTunes
An invention from the late 1890s, piano rolls proved to be a popular diversion in the 1920s, so popular in fact that they warranted a regular review in the New Yorker, along with records and sheet music:
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One of the more curious series of advertisements to appear in the early New Yorker were these from the Chicago Tribune. Shameless in their boosterism, these ran during the editorship of Col. Robert R. McCormick, who was strongly associated with old right-wing politics and isolationist movements. The Tribune’s motto at this time was “The American Paper for Americans.”
Another ad that caught my eye was this one for Johnnie Walker cigarettes…I guess you’d better listen when a giant hand reaches down from the heavens and taps you on the shoulder. I love the resigned look on the face of his companion: “Oh dear, it’s that dreadful hand again…”
It what would become a longstanding tradition, the New Yorker marked its third anniversary by featuring the original cover illustration (by Rea Irvin) from Issue No. 1. The New Yorker was a very different magazine by its third year, fat with advertising and its editorial content bolstered by such talents as Peter Arno, E.B. White and Dorothy Parker.
Parker livened up the magazine’s books section, mincing few words as she took on writers both great and not so great.
In the latter category was Aimee Semple McPherson, a 1920s forerunner of today’s glitzy televangelists. In her column “Reading and Writing,” Parker took aim at McPherson — “Our Lady of the Loud-speaker” — who had just published a book titled In the Service of the King.
McPherson was a Pentecostal-style preacher who practiced “speaking in tongues” and faith healing in her services, which drew huge crowds at revival events between 1919 and 1922. She took to the radio in the early 1920s and in 1923 she based her ministry in Los Angeles at her newly completed Angelus Temple, which served as the center of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.
McPherson’s book detailed her conversion and her various hardships, including her mysterious “kidnapping” in 1926. Parker was having none of it:
Parker was referring to events beginning on May 18, 1926, when the evangelist went to Venice Beach for a swim and went missing. Some thought she had drown, others claimed they saw a “sea monster” in the area. McPherson reemerged in June on the Mexico-Arizona border, claiming she had been kidnapped and held captive by three strangers.
Numerous allegations of illicit love affairs targeted McPherson during her years of fame, so some were inclined to believe she went missing in order to engage in a love affair with her sound engineer.
Upon her return to Los Angeles she was greeted by a huge crowd (est. 30,000 to 50,000) that paraded her back to the Angelus Temple. However many others in the city found McPherson’s homecoming gaudy and annoying. A grand jury was subsequently convened to determine if evidence of a kidnapping could be found, but the court soon turned its focus to McPherson herself to determine if she had faked the kidnapping. Parker thought the condition of the preacher’s shoes, after a long trek through the desert, were evidence enough of a sham:
McPherson, who was married three times and twice divorced, died in September 1944 from an apparent overdose of sleeping pills. She was 53. Her son Rolf took over the ministry after her death. Today McPherson’s Foursquare Church has a worldwide membership of about 8 million. It is still based in Los Angeles.
But How Do I Look?
The Feb. 25 issue profiled the young Jascha Heifetz, a Russian-born violin prodigy who seemed more interested in how he looked than in how he performed. An excerpt:
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Speaking of fashion, one of the world’s greatest fashion designers, Paul Poiret, was seeing hard times in the late 1920s with his designs losing popularity in his native France and his formidable fashion empire on the brink of collapse. But Francophile New Yorkers, always hungry for French fashion, greeted Poiret with open arms when he arrived in the city in the fall of 1927.
It is something of a surprise, however, to find this advertisement in the Feb. 25 issue in which Poiret endorses Rayon, a man-made substitute for silk. We don’t usually associate synthetics with haute couture, but then again maybe Poiret just needed the money. Better living through chemistry, as they say…
Also in the issue was a sad, Prohibition-era advertisement that extolled the virtues of an oxymoronic “non-alcoholic vermouth”…
And finally from the Feb. 25 issue, a cartoon by Carl Rose…
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In the March 3 issue “The Talk of the Town” discovered the miracle of television during a visit to the Bell Telephone laboratories.
Lab researchers demonstrated a “receiving grid” with a tiny screen that displayed images broadcast across the expanse of an auditorium:
Another glimpse into the future in the March 3 issue came courtesy illustrator Al Frueh, who offered this fanciful look at the skyscraper of tomorrow:
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“Profile” featured the first installment of a four-part article (by Niven Busch Jr.) on a man who put America on wheels and into traffic jams. Excerpts:
And finally, an analogy that would take on new meaning after the market crash…
Dorothy Parker had a particular aversion to intellectual snobs, and in the Feb. 11, 1928 issue she wrote that the city had been beset with “Literary Rotarians” in search of bookish gatherings attended by people who, according to Parker, “looked as if they had been scraped out of drains.”
I would have to say Parker was on firm ground here. Her own writing was clear and unaffected, and her tastes were democratic (she enjoyed and even wrote about comic strips). So when the book dandies crossed her path, there was trouble:
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Parker continued, recalling the trauma she once endured at a literary association dinner:
Thumb on the Scale of Justice
An unfortunate aspect of American life is how the law is selectively applied to favor those in power. Such was the case of Florence Knapp, who was elected as New York’s Secretary of State in 1924. After leaving office in 1926, she was accused of maladministration, and two years later was convicted of grand larceny while in office—Knapp put her stepdaughter’s name on the state payroll during the administration of the 1925 census, then cashed the checks herself, apparently using the funds to purchase clothes.
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In a special article for the New Yorker, contributing writer Hugh O’Connor did not disagree with Knapp’s guilt, but found the hypocrisy of her accusers hard to stomach. Some excerpts:
Just in case anyone thought this was solely a Republican hit job, O’Connor concluded that the other side was just as complicit in keeping women from high office:
For the record, Knapp was the last Secretary of State elected to that office in New York. After Knapp the office became appointive by the governor, and remains so today. It would be 50 years until another woman would be elected to a statewide office in New York.
Opening Eyes to Red Russia
The New Yorker encouraged open-minded readers to check out a new exhibition on Soviet Russia that offered an alternative vision of a young country beset by famine and political violence:
The exhibition featured hand-carved toys probably similar to these:
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Also featured were pieces of “boldly propagandistic china.” Below are some examples of period pieces, not necessarily featured in the exhibition but perhaps give some idea of what New Yorkers were viewing in 1928. They range from kitschy…
…to the stunningly avant garde….
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Woof for Westminster
The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was abuzz with anticipation for the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. The article noted that the record price paid for a dog was $9,500 (roughly equivalent to $133,000 today). By comparison, in 2014 a Chinese property developer paid nearly $2 million for a Tibetan mastiff puppy.
Note how the writer of the “Talk” piece already knows that the “wire-haired terrier” has the inside track to victory:
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Advertisers in the New Yorker also had Westminster fever, including sporting goods purveyor Abercrombie & Fitch (note the breed of the tartan-clad dog):
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I found this advertisement in the back pages interesting because it called out the New Yorker’s Lois Long, who wrote her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” under the pseudonym “Lipstick.” The drawing for the ad was provided by Rea Irvin, the artist who gave the magazine its signature look.
In her nightlife column Long played coy with her readers, careful not to reveal her true identity. She teased about being a “short squat maiden of forty,” but when she married cartoonist and fellow New Yorker contributor Peter Arno in August 1927, word was out about her true identity. Irvin’s drawing aptly captures Long in her early years at the New Yorker, on a writer’s salary but nevertheless fashionably dressed, partying all night and heading home with the rising sun.
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And finally, a great illustration that graced the bottom of the “Talk” section. If anyone knows the artist, please comment!
Gene Tunney was not your typical boxer. Holder of the heavyweight title from 1926 to 1928, he defeated his rival Jack Dempsey in 1926 and again in 1927 in the famous “Long Count Fight.” But Tunney was no Palooka—he preferred to be known as a cultured gentleman, and made a number of friends in the literary world including George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Thornton Wilder.
So when given the opportunity to say a few words, Tunney made the most of it, including at a dinner hosted by boxing and hockey promoter Tex Rickard to honor champions in various sports. The New Yorker’s E.B. White was there tell us about it:
While Tunney was doubtless composing his thoughts at the banquet table, baseball legend Babe Ruth was wishing he could be someplace else…
…like hanging out with his old buddy Jack Dempsey…
Instead, the Babe would have to listen to a surprise speech by Tunney, who sought to prove to those in attendance that he had brains to match his brawn. No doubt to the relief of many in attendance, New York City’s flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker, was able to return the proceedings to party mode.
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The New Yorker writers found little to like about Hollywood, but Charlie Chaplin could always be counted on to knock out a humorous film. At least most of the time. Here is what “The Talk of the Town” had to say about his latest, The Circus:
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Give ‘Em Dirty Laundry
In these days of clickbait and other news designed to attract our prurient interest, we can look back 89 years a see that the tabloids were doing much of the same, particularly in Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Graphic, which was making the most of the final days of death row inmates Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray…
Former lovers Snyder and Gray were sentenced to death in 1927 for the premeditated murder of Snyder’s husband (they went to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on Jan. 12, 1928). Newspapers across the country sensationalized their trial, but the Graphic went the extra step by paying large sums to celebrity correspondents, including evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, to write about the sordid case. Sister Aimee used her Graphic column to encourage young men to “want a wife like mother — not a Red Hot cutie.” Semple herself would later be accused of an affair, but then what else is new in the business of casting stones?
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Even His Skivvies?
We can also look back 89 years and see that people were just as celebrity-crazed then as they are now. Charles Lindbergh could barely keep the clothes on his back while being pursued by adoring mobs, according to “Talk of the Town”…
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Dorothy Parker wrote a vigorous, even impassioned defense of the late dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Reading and Writing.” Parker reviewed Duncan’s posthumously published autobiography, My Life, which she found “interesting and proudly moving” even if the book itself was “abominably written,” filled with passages of “idiotic naïveté” and “horrendously flowery verbiage.” In this “mess of prose” Parker also found passion, suffering and glamour—three words that Parker could have used to describe her own life.
Parker elaborated on the word “glamour,” which she thought had been cheapened in her day to something merely glittery and all surface. True glamour, wrote Parker, was that of Isadora Duncan, coming from her “great, torn, bewildered, foolhardy soul.” Parker concluded with this plea:
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New Kid on the Block
Yet another high-rise dwelling was available to Jazz Age New Yorkers—One Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. One Fifth Avenue was an apartment with the word “hotel” attached to justify its 27-story height. To meet zoning requirements, the apartments had “pantries” instead of kitchens. But then again, your “servant” would fetch your dinner anyway…
Historical note: One Fifth Avenue marked a dramatic change in the character of Washington Square, one of the most prestigious residential neighborhoods of early New York City. A previous occupant of the One Fifth Avenue site was the brownstone mansion of William Butler Duncan. In addition to One Fifth Avenue, the residences at 3, 5, and 7 Fifth Avenue were also demolished to make way for the new art deco “apartment hotel.”
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To close, a two-page spread by Helen Hokison exploring one woman’s challenge with the “flapper bob” (sorry about the crease in the scan–that is how it is reproduced in the online archive). Click the image to enlarge.
And a bit of fun on the streetcar, courtesy of cartoonist Leonard Dove…
After his famous transatlantic flight, not only did Charles Lindbergh have to endure endless banquets and the sweaty crush of adoring crowds, but he also inspired a lot of kitsch, including some spectacularly bad poetry that Dorothy Parker could’t help but eviscerate in the Jan. 7, 1928 issue.
Before we tackle the poetry, here is a sampling of various Lindbergh memorabilia:
Parker led off her “Reading & Writing” column with this observation about the collapse of grammar and civilization in general…
…and offered two examples—chocolate-covered olives and a new book of poems dedicated to Charles Lindbergh’s heroic solo crossing of the Atlantic…
Parker’s comment about guiding a razor across her throat is a bit unnerving, considering she was chronically depressed and occasionally suicidal throughout her life. But then again, Parker didn’t like ugly things, including bad poetry, and especially bad poetry written by a 12-year-old “prodigy,” in this case a one Nathalia Crane, who claimed the top prize in the Lindbergh collection. Parker observed:
Nathalia Crane gained fame after the publication of her first book of poetry, The Janitor’s Boy, which she wrote at age 10. After her second book of poetry was published in 1925, American poet Edwin Markham suggested the poems were part of a hoax because they exhibited a maturity of thought beyond the reach of a mere child. (A sidebar: Parker referred to Nathalia as a “Baby Peggy of poesy.” Baby Peggy, whose real name was Diana Serra Cary, was a beloved child silent film star. Still alive at this writing, she is 99 years old–the last living film star of the silent era).
Parker observed that “Lindbergh” was not a name well suited to poetry, and concluded with the hope that the aviator would be spared from having to read the “sickly, saccharine, inept, ill-wrought tributes”…
Tilt Your Vote to Al
When New York Governor Al Smith announced his candidacy for U.S. President, New Yorker cartoonist Al Frueh had some fun with the governor’s habit of wearing his ever-present bowler hat at a tilt:
They Dropped Like Flies
Nicholas Trott visited the 1928 New York Automobile Salon and rattled off this list of 43 car companies that would be displaying their shiny wares:
Of those 43 companies, only 6 are in operation today. Interestingly, the car ads that appeared in the Jan. 7 issue were mostly from companies that are long gone. Here is a sampling:
And finally, we close with Peter Arno and some dinner party hijinks…
My last entry featured cartoonist Bud Fisher, inventor of the comic “strip” (Mutt & Jeff) and the subject of the New Yorker’s Nov. 26, 1927 “Profile.” It was something of a surprise, then, to open the next issue, Dec. 3, and find the New Yorker’s literary critic Dorothy Parker offering her observations on the funny papers, including Sidney Smith’s comic strip, The Gumps.
Before we get to Ms. Parker, let’s have a look at The Gumps. Although that strip had plenty of slapstick, it was wordier than Mutt & Jeff and somewhat more realistic (Sidney Smith was the first cartoonist to kill off a regular character, in 1929–it caused a national outcry). An example of the strip from around 1920:
Like Bud Fisher, Sidney Smith would become wealthy from the merchandising of Gump toys, games, songs, food products, etc…
The Gumps were also featured in nearly 50 animated shorts, and between 1923 and 1928 Universal produced dozens of two-reel comedies starring Joe Murphy (one of the original Keystone Cops) as Andy Gump, Fay Tincher as Min and Jack Morgan as Chester (two-reelers were usually comedies, about 20 minutes long). The director of these short films, Norman Taurog, would go on to become the youngest director to win an Academy Award (Skippy 1931). He would also direct such films as Boy’s Town (1938) and nine Elvis Presley movies from 1960 to 1968.
In 1922, The Gumps cartoonist Sidney Smith famously signed a 10-year, one million-dollar contract. In 1935 he would sign an even more lucrative contract, but on his way home from the signing he would die in a car accident.
In her column, “Reading and Writing,” Dorothy Parker (writing under the pen name “Constant Reader”) lamented the fact that the comic strips were abandoning simple, light horseplay in favor of “melodramas.” Apparently even Andy Gump wasn’t exempt:
Parker also bemoaned the likes of Little Orphan Annie and the gang from Gasoline Alley, where everyday hijinks were replaced by melodrama:
Parker suffered throughout her life from depression, and no doubt turned to the funnies for respite. However, she wrote that she hadn’t “seen a Pow or a Bam in an egg’s age,” and sadly concluded that melodrama was what the readers wanted.
When Minerva Was a Car
The New Yorker’s Nicholas Trott visited the Automobile Salon at the Hotel Commodore and noted that the latest trend favored an automobile’s “ruggedness” over its “prettiness.” Given the condition of roads in the 1920s, that probably wasn’t a bad thing…
In the early days of the auto industry there were thousands of different manufacturers that eventually went broke or merged with other companies. Trott’s article mentioned new offerings from Chrysler, Mercedes, and Cadillac as well as from such makes as Erskine, Sterns-Knight, Minerva, Holbrook Franklin, Stutz, and Brewster.
In “The Talk of the Town,” however, the editors wrote about another car with a far less colorful name: The Ford Model A. After 18 years of the ubiquitous black Model T, Ford buyers were ready for something different…
The New Yorker editors cautioned, however, that buyers of the Model A should “not expect too much” from a car aimed at more modest pocketbooks. In a little more than a year Ford would sell one million of the things, and by the summer of 1929, more than two million.
When Model A production ended in early 1932, nearly five million of the cars had been produced.
It’s seemed a bit of an “about face” for New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell to write of the “horrific style of modern Germany” after previously writing admiringly of the Bauhaus movement and “International Style” promulgated by Le Corbusier. Chappell’s column “The Sky Line” included this subhead, “German Atrocities Neatly Escaped.” In a few years “German Atrocities” would refer to something very different…
Another monstrous building of note in Chappell’s column was the “huge” Equitable Trust Building at 15 Broad Street…
To save the best for last, Chappell also wrote of Cass Gilbert’s landmark New York Life Building, rising on the site of the old Madison Square Garden…
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She Nearly Made It
Morris Markey wrote about the exploits of pilot and actress Ruth Elder in his “Reporter at Large” column. Known as the “Miss America of Aviation,” on Oct. 11, 1927 Elder and her co-pilot, George Haldeman, took off from New York in her attempt to become the first woman to make a transatlantic crossing to Paris. Mechanical problems in their airplane (a Stinson Detroiter dubbed American Girl) caused them to ditch into the ocean 350 miles northeast of the Azores. Fortunately they were rescued by a Dutch oil tanker in the vicinity.
Although they were unable to duplicate Charles Lindbergh’s feat, Elder and Haldeman nevertheless established a new over-water endurance flight record of 2,623 miles–the longest flight ever made by a woman. They were honored with a ticker-tape parade upon their return to New York. Despite her derring-do, Elder suggested that she longed for a simpler, more domestic life…
Whether or not she found the simple life it is hard to say. She married six times, perhaps looking for the right “old stuff” and not quite finding it.
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And finally, this ad from the Dec. 3 issue featuring the art of New Yorker contributor John Held Jr…
…and this cartoon by Otto Soglow, depicting how one toff bags his “trophy”…
It is often observed that when we look to the past we can see our the future. More than 90 years ago, Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) wrote an influential book on modern architecture, Vers une Architecture (1923) that helped to radically change our built environment.Translated into English in 1927 under varying titles (Toward an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), the book caught the appreciative eye of New Yorker architecture critic George Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym “T-Square.”
Given that most new architecture in Manhattan was adorned in architectural stylings from the past, or gussied up in Jazz Age art deco, Chappell was introducing his readers to something very different, to ideas that would transform their city within two generations.
In his embrace of technology and mass production, Corbusier maintained that houses should be built in standardized forms that allowed for continuous refinement, designed as “machines for living” with the same precision as automobiles and airplanes…
In case you doubt the architect’s fervor, here is Corbusier’s manifesto on mass production included in Towards a New Architecture:
In Towards a New Architecture, Corbusier wrote that while architecture was stifled by custom and lost in the past (“to send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life…”), engineers were embracing new technologies and building simple, effective and “honest” structures. Rather than rely on past forms or contemporary trends such as art deco, Corbusier said architecture should fundamentally change how humans interact with buildings.
Corbusier concluded his book with a moral imperative and an ominous choice for the future: “Architecture or Revolution.” He asserted that the “great disagreement between the modern state of mind…and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus” would force modern man to live in an “old and hostile environment” and deny him an “organized family life,” ultimately leading to the destruction of the family.
In less than 10 years the Nazis would chase the “degenerate” Bauhaus out of Europe and into the embrace of American academe. In short order Corporate America would adopt Corbusier’s International Style, if imperfectly, but most Americans would prove resistant to making their homes into “machines for living.”
Corbusier would doubtless be shocked (and disappointed) to know that 100 years hence people would still choose to live in mock Tudors and “Tuscan Villas,” especially in the midst of so much advanced technology.
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AS HE WAS SAYING…
The new Sherry-Netherland apartment hotel near Central Park was exactly the sort of architecture Corbusier detested. The New Yorker editors in “The Talk of the Town,” however, seemed impressed with its elegant appointments…
“Talk” noted that beneath the Sherry-Netherland’s spire the penthouse apartment could be had for $35,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $477,000 today. The building went co-op in the 1950s, and that would have been a good time to buy the penthouse. Today it is valued at more than $100 million.
Poo on Pooh
Dorothy Parker lamented the state of children’s literature in the “Books” section, and expressed her displeasure with A.A. Milne, a former humor writer for Punch who “went quaint” with his Winnie the Pooh stories.
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New Game in Town
Niven Busch Jr. wrote about the growing popularity of professional hockey. Tex Rickard’s two-year-old franchise, the New York Rangers, were a major draw at the new Madison Square Garden (they would win the Stanley Cup in their second year), and even Texans were into the sport–Busch noted that a game between Dallas and Fort Worth teams drew 20,000 spectators.
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And finally, from the world of advertising, here is one in a series of classically themed ads for the McCreery department store…
…and this advertisement for the Marmon 8, an “ideal woman’s car”…