For more than a century, a political organization known as the Tammany Society ruled New York City politics with an iron fist. Founded in 1786 (and named for Tamanend, a chief in the Lenni-Lenape nation), by the mid 19th century it rapidly expanded its political control by earning the loyalty of the city’s fast-growing immigrant population, particularly the Irish.
The Tammany Society proved an efficient machine for controlling state Democratic politics as well as New York City elections. Through its use of patronage to reward loyal precinct leaders, it also became a center for big-time graft. Most of us know a bit about Tammany thanks to school history books that focused on the deep corruption of William “Boss” Tweed, who was brought down by the press and by Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Tammany Hall would survive the scandal, and in the 1920s would still pull the strings of politicians including Gov. Al Smith and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.
Tammany had several homes, but during its most notorious years it was located in a circa 1812 hall (then called a “wigwam”) and later in an 1868 building on 14th Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. The July 13, 1929 “Talk of the Town” noted the recent demolition of that old hall and the opening of a new headquarters on 17th Street:
“Talk” found the new building unimpressive; it seemed to signal that the old political machine was losing some of its luster:
Indeed, “Talk” found the building to be a somewhat austere, hosed-down affair, far removed from its grander past:
For further evidence that the more austere Tammany Hall was nevertheless alive and well in 1929, another “Talk” item noted the organization’s continued influence behind the scenes in local politics:
The 1930s marked the beginning of the end for Tammany Hall, when reform-minded Democrats such as President Franklin Roosevelt and New York’s Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (supported by Roosevelt on a “Fusion” ticket) dismantled Tammany’s system of patronage. The Tammany Society abandoned its headquarters in 1943 when it found it no longer had the funds to maintain the hall. Bought by a local affiliate of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, it later housed the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theatre until 2016, when it underwent extensive remodeling to make way for new office and retail space.
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Your Two Cents Worth
“Talk” also commented on the introduction of a new two-cent stamp that featured an image of Thomas Edison’s Mazda lamp, marking the celebration of 50 years of electric light. The magazine cheekily suggested that in the world of technological progress, there was nothing new under the sun:
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Americans in Paris
The New Yorker featured this humorous bit by a writer identified as “Guido” (I assume it is one of E.B. White’s many pseudonyms), who looked in on the chatter of various Parisian cafés and bars:
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Hit and Miss
The New Yorker generally reveled in the good times Florenz Ziegfeld brought to the stage, but his latest effort, Show Girl, proved a bit of a disappointment (more evidence, in my view, that folks were tiring of the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties):
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One of a Kind
New Yorker sportswriter Niven Busch, Jr. provided a nice write-up on golfer Bobby Jones, the most successful amateur ever to compete in the sport. An attorney by trade, the unassuming Jones had just won his third U.S. Open (he would win again in 1930). In all he would play in 31 majors, winning 13 of them and finishing in the top 10 an incredible 27 times. After retiring at age 28 in 1930 he helped design the Augusta National Golf Club and co-founded the Masters Tournament. An excerpt:
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An Odd Bit
Looking around the July 13 issue, let’s see what nighttime diversions were being touted by the New Yorker in their “Going on About Town” section (note the warning on the last item):
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From Our Advertisers
The makers of Pond’s cold cream continued to roll out endorsements from high society with this testimonial from Jane Kendall Mason (1909-1980), the newlywed wife of George Grant Mason, an executive with Pan American Airways in Cuba.
In 1925, the 17-year-old Jane made her formal debut in Washington society. After a visit with Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the first lady famously declared that Jane was “the most beautiful girl ever to enter the White House.”
After their marriage, the Masons became friends with Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, and introduced the Hemingways into Cuban society. Jane could hunt, fish, and hold her liquor, and, according to Ernest Hemingway, she was the most uninhibited person he’d ever met. So naturally they had a torrid, tempestuous, two-month affair that ended with Jane’s attempted suicide (she leapt from a balcony that was not high enough to do the job).
Hemingway supposedly used Jane as a model for the cruel-hearted Margot Macomber in The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber, in which the title character—trapped in a sad marriage to a wealthy but spineless American (George?)—accidently shoots her husband in the head while on safari. She is also considered to be the model for the sex-obsessed Helene Bradley in Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not— a character also married to a rich but spineless husband.
Mark Walston, writing for the July-August issue of Bethesda Magazine, notes that the mean-spirited Hemingway “sent Jane drafts of his work, taunting and tormenting her with his venomous and thinly veiled portraits.” According to Walston, Jane divorced Mason in 1940, and one month later married John Hamilton, former executive director of the Republican National Committee. After that brief marriage she wed George Abell, columnist for The Baltimore Sun and Washington Times-Herald. Her fourth and final husband was Arnold Gingrich, founder of Esquire and editor of Coronet magazines. Jane died in 1980. On her tombstone is her self-penned epitaph: “Talents too many, not enough of any.”
On to our next ad, which featured an interesting exchange between two men who discuss the fortunes of a guy named Cecil Barnes, retired at age 33 and owner of a new personal airplane…
…and we segue into our cartoons, featuring a mother and child (drawn by Kindl) probably flying on one of those Sikorskys…
…Rollin Kirby looked in on a tailor’s shop (this is one of only two drawings published by Kirby in the New Yorker)…
…a note on Kirby, a three-time Pulitzer winner: outraged by the passage of Prohibition laws, Kirby created one of his most famous characters, “Mr. Dry,” which he introduced to readers of the New York World in January 1920…
You can read more about Rollin Kirby and Mr. Dry here.
…Roland Baum peeked in on a reluctant stargazer…
…and to close, this little filler drawing of a hot dog vendor by Constantin Alajalov…
While the Empire State Building developers were preparing to reduce the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to rubble, another venerable relic of the Victorian age, the Murray Hill Hotel, was still clinging to the earth at its prime location next to the Grand Central Depot.
The hotel’s survival was due in part to its owner, Benjamin L. M. Bates (1864-1935), who seemed as much a part of the hotel as its heavy drapes and overstuffed chairs. Bates, who started out at the hotel as assistant night clerk, was profiled in the June 15, 1929 issue by Joseph Gollomb (with portrait by Reginald Marsh) Some excerpts:
The hotel was just 26 years old when Bates bought it in 1910. But by the Roaring Twenties Murray Hill Hotel seemed as ancient as grandmother’s Hepplewhite…
…but to the very end it continued to be a popular gathering spot for New York notables, including Christopher Morley’s prestigious literary society, the Baker Street Irregulars…
…with the hotel’s prime location near Grand Central Depot (and its replacement, Grand Central Station), the party couldn’t last forever, and the Murray Hill Hotel yielded to the wrecking ball in 1947…
Some parting notes about the Murray Hill Hotel: In 1905, delegates from 58 colleges and universities gathered at the hotel to address brutality in college football and reform the sport. They formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, which would later become the NCAA.
The hotel was also the site of a massive explosion in 1902, when workers constructing a subway tunnel under Park Avenue accidentally set a dynamite shed ablaze. Every window along Park Avenue and 40th Street was blown out, and the blast opened a pit, 10 feet deep and 30 feet wide, in front of the building. Five people were killed by the blast—three of them at the Murray Hill Hotel.
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Irwin S. Chanin, fresh from erecting his Art Deco masterpiece, the Chanin Building, was now setting his sights on the Century Theatre, barely 20 years old but already obsolete due to its poor acoustics and inconvenient location. The “Talk of the Town” takes it from there…
As the Century Theatre marked its last days, an older and more successful theater in the Bowery went up in flames. The Thalia Theatre (also known as “Bowery Theatre” and other names) was a popular entertainment venue for 19th century New Yorkers and for the Bowery’s succession of immigrant groups. A series of buildings (it burned four times in 17 years) housed Irish, German and Yiddish theater and later Italian and Chinese vaudeville. The 1929 fire marked the end of the line. “Talk” noted its passing…
While we are on the subject of the changing skyline, I will toss in this cartoon from the issue by Reginald Marsh…the caption read: “I tell you, Gus, this town ain’t what it used to be.”
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Down for the Count
There was a bit of a sensation in the June newspapers when a European count was arrested for running a bootlegging ring among socially prominent circles. A headline in a June 8, 1929 edition of the New York Times shouted: LIQUOR RING PATRONS FACING SUBPOENAS; Socially Prominent Customers Are Listed in Papers Found in de Polignac Raids. COUNT SAILS FOR PARIS. Goes, After Nearly Losing Bail Bond, Smilingly Calling the Affair ‘Misapprehension.’
What the Times so breathlessly recounted were the activities of Count Maxence de Polignac (1857–1936), who owned one of France’s most prominent Champagne houses, Pommery & Greno.
The Times reported that an undercover federal agent, William J. Calhoun, led a raid that netted the Count and 34 others in a liquor ring connected to many Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue residents. Calhoun’s agents interrupted the Count’s morning bath (at his suite in the Savoy-Plaza Hotal) to make the arrest. They seized more than “seven cases of champage and liquors” in the suite, which the count said were for his personal use. Denying all charges, de Polignac was nevertheless arrested. Thanks to a guarantee provided by his friends at the Equitable Surety Company, he made the $25,000 bail and quickly set sail for Paris. “Talk” reported…
“Talk” concluded the dispatch with some notes on Calhoun’s character as a federal agent…
…and a final bit of trivia, Count Maxence de Polignac was the father of Prince Pierre of Monaco, Duke of Valentinois, who in turn was the father of Rainier III of Monaco, who famously married the actress Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly, by the way, was born in November 1929, just months after her grandfather-in-law’s run in with Prohibition authorities.
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Once again “Talk” looked in on aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, and his dispassionate approach to matters of fame…
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Mr. Monroe Outwits a Bat
James Thurber submitted a humorous piece on a husband and wife at a weekend cabin retreat. The husband encounters a bat, and feigns to dispatch it while his wife remains behind closed doors. A brief clip:
Thurber’s office mate and friend, E.B. White, penned a piece on the opening of the Central Park Casino (“Casino, I Love You”) in which he pretended to be a hobo loitering outside the Casino’s recent grand re-opening. Some excerpts…
White’s character confuses Urbain Ledoux with Casino designer Joseph Urban. Ledoux was known to New Yorkers as “Mr. Zero,” a local humanitarian who managed breadlines for the poor. White’s character continues to name off the notables present at the event…
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From Our Advertisers
We begin with a Pond’s cold cream ad featuring Janet Newbold (1908-1982), who was known in some circles as “the most beautiful woman in New York”…
…some of the more colorful ads in the June 15 issue included this entry by Jantzen…
…and this ad for the REO Flying Cloud, a name that suggested speed and lightness, and changed the way cars would be named in the future (e.g. “Mustang” rather than “Model A”)…
…and if you think gimmicky razors are something new, think again…
…this ad announcing Walter Winchell’s employment with the New York Daily Mirror is significant in that in marks the beginning of the first syndicated gossip column. Winchell’s column, On-Broadway, was syndicated nationwide by King Features. A year later he would make his radio debut over New York’s WABC…
…for our June 15 cartoons, Isadore Klein confirms that stereotypes regarding American tourists haven’t changed much in 90 years…
…a quick footnote on Klein. In his long and colorful career, he would contribute cartoons to the New Yorker and many other publications. He also drew cartoons for silent movies, including Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat, and later worked for major animation studios including Screen Gems, Hal Seeger Productions, and Walt Disney. He was a writer and animator for such popular cartoons as Mighty Mouse, Casper, Little Lulu and Popeye.
…Belgium-born artist Victor De Pauw depicted President Herbert Hoover picnicking, as viewed through his security detail…
…and a quick note on De Pauw…well known during his lifetime, he illustrated seven covers for the New Yorker and drew many social and political cartoons for magazines such as Vanity Fair, Fortune and Life. He also had a career as a serious painter, and some of his work can be found at the Museum of Modern Art…
…Helen Hokinson looked in on two of her society women in need of some uplift…
…and Leonard Dove looked in on another enjoying a soak…
Moving along to the June 22, 1929 issue, “The Talk of the Town” offered more news on the city’s changing skyline…
…and noted that the slender 1906 “Chimney Corner” building at Wall and Broadway had a date with the wrecking ball…
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Apartheid on the Seas
“Talk” also featured this sad account of a theatrical company setting sale for England and discovering that racial discrimination did not end at the docks of New York Harbor. It is also sad that the New Yorker didn’t seem to have any problem with this injustice, and rather saw it as nothing more than fodder for an amusing anecdote…
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The profile for June 22 featured 100-year-old John R. Voorhis (1829-1932), Chairman of New York City’s Board of Elections. A fixture of the Tammany Hall Democratic political machine, in 1931 Tammany members created a special title for the old man—Great Grand Sachem. He died the next year at age 102.
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From Our Advertisers
Another colorful entry from the makers of Jantzen swimwear to celebrate the summer season…
…famed composer George Gershwin urged his fans to light up a Lucky Strike…
…and with help from the New Yorker’sRea Irwin, Knox Hatters offered yet another example of the faux pas one might suffer without the proper headgear…
…for our June 22 cartoons, Helen Hokinson caught up with some American tourists…
…John Reynolds found a bit of irony in one carnival barker’s claim…
…and Peter Arno revealed a less than glamorous face behind a radio broadcast…
Like his good friend Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Barton wore a mask of a clown that hid a face of bitter anguish. Chaplin would cope, more or less. Barton would not.
A member of the New Yorker gang from the very beginning, Barton served as the magazine’s advisory editor but more famously as a caricaturist of the Roaring Twenties, also contributing to the likes of Harper’s Bazaar, Collier’s, Vanity Fair and Judge. He also illustrated one of the most popular books of the Twenties, Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:
In 1929 Barton would publish a book of his own, God’s Country, which was reviewed in the March 16, 1929 edition of the New Yorker:
The same issue featured this advertisement from Knopf promoting God’s Country as the latest addition to its lovely Borzoi Books collection (and endorsed by composer and Barton friend George Gershwin)…
Some excerpts from the book…(click to enlarge)
Barton was a longtime friend of Charlie Chaplin, even coming to the silent film star’s defense (in the pages of the July 23, 1927 New Yorker) when many Americans turned their backs on the comedian during a messy and much publicized divorce trial. In that New Yorker piece Barton concluded that France would be a better, more welcoming home to such an artist:
The manic-depressive Barton had his own problems in the love department, marrying four times in his short life, most famously to wife No. 3, stage and film actress Carlotta Monterey, who divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929. Although Barton would marry again, he would never recover from his loss of Monterey.
A little more than two years after publishing God’s Country—May 19, 1931—the 39-year-old Barton shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown apartment. He referred to Carlotta Monterey in his suicide note, writing that he had lost the only woman he’d ever loved. He also wrote: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife and house to house, visited great countries of the world—but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”
As the exuberance of the Jazz Age faded into the Depression, so did Barton’s reputation as a chronicler of that age. An abstract for the 1998 Library of Congress exhibition Caricature and Cartoon in Twentieth-Century America notes that “in a good week he (Barton) could make $1,500 (about $22,000 today) but a couple of years after his early death his caricature of George Gershwin sold for $5.”
The last caricature Barton ever drew was of his old friend, Charlie Chaplin.
Note: I took the title of this blog entry from a 1991 book on the life of Ralph Barton: The Last Dandy, Ralph Barton, American Artist, 1891-1931, by Bruce Keller.
Preceding the review of Barton’s book in the March 16 New Yorker was this much less complimentary review of Sinclair Lewis’s latest effort, Dodsworth, a story in the tradition of Henry James about wealthy middle-class Americans on a grand tour of Europe.
The task of skewering Lewis and his book fell to Dorothy Parker, who would never mistake Lewis for Henry James: ““I can not, with the slightest sureness, tell you if it (Dodsworth) will sweep the country, like ‘Main Street,’ or bring forth yards of printed praise…My guess would be that it will not. Other guesses which I have made in the past half-year have been that Al Smith would carry New York state, that St. John Ervine would be a great dramatic critic for an American newspaper, and that I would have more than twenty-six dollars in the bank on March 1st. So you see my my confidence in my judgment is scarcely what it used to be.”
Parker took particular umbrage at Lewis’s use of the name of a character from another book as a descriptive term for his latest:
Parker concluded that if a reader could wade through the book’s cluttered language and “grotesquely over-drawn figures,” there was a conclusion that was perhaps worth pursuing…
…the New Yorker was never afraid to bite the hand that fed it (except Raoul Fleischmann’s, whose money saved the magazine from an early death), so even though its author was savaged on the opposite page, Dodsworth’s publisher Harcourt still sprung for an ad:
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This Geometric Life
The author of the March 16, 1929 “Comment” (Leading item of “The Talk of the Town”) found the “geometric life” dictated by modern design took some getting used to. This entry was most likely written by E.B. White:
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Mexican actress and emerging star Lupe Velez caught the eye, and ear, of the New Yorker in her latest film, Lady of the Pavements…
An ad in the same issue of the New Yorker touted the film’s appearance at Public Theaters, a chain owned by Paramount:
Well-known for her explosive screen presence, Velez was big star in the 1930s. Married to Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller from 1933 to 1939, her star began to fade at the end of the decade. She died of a drug overdose in 1944, just 36 years of age.
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From Our Advertisers
A few advertisements that caught my eye from the March 16 issue…one thing you notice is the emerging sophistication of advertising techniques, including this ad for Resilio Cravats that enticed by deliberating not showing the product…
…and this ad that demonstrated Best & Co. was not shy at all to show women in their skivvies (or suggest that they could wear the same undergarments as a Follies performer)…
…and then we have this strange ad for Cutex nail polish, with an endorsement by Sophie Peirce-Evans, later known as Mary, Lady Heath, a well-know aviatrix (dubbed “Lady Icarus”) of the 1920s who shared headlines with Amelia Earhart for her high-flying derring-do. The close-up shot of the hands is priceless…
…and then we have another celebrity endorsement of a cigarette by a society figure—interior designer and social maven Elsie de Wolfe, who was also known as Lady Mendl…
…and on to the cartoons…Peter Arno listened in on two young debutantes sizing up a dowager at a society gathering…
…while Garrett Price looked in on well-heeled visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art contemplating what appears to be the work of W.A. Dwiggins in the museum’s The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition…
A defining moment for Art Deco design in America occurred at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during a 1929 exhibition that showcased everything from household furnishings to garden design.
Before we delve into the Met’s exhibition, The Architect and the Industrial Arts, a quick note about the New Yorker’sTheodore Haupt-illustrated cover, which referenced the annual Six-Day Cycling Race that was taking place at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome. The event, which began at the old Madison Square Garden in 1891 and lasted until 1950, featured a beer garden (after Prohibition) in the center of the oval and drew such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck and Peggy Joyce. It was said that Crosby even paid the hospital bills of riders who fell during the race.
The March 9 issue was lively with another contribution from Groucho Marx (“Press Agents I Have Known”) and an Alexander Woollcott-penned profile of playwright and screenwriter Charles Gordon MacArthur (husband of stage actress Helen Hayes and father of James “Book ’em Danno” MacArthur).
But as the blog title suggests, it was also filled with articles and ads that told of a city embracing all things new and modern, including a piece by architecture critic George S. Chappell on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eleventh Exhibition of Contemporary American Design, titled The Architect and the Industrial Arts. It was curated by the Met’s Richard F. Bach, who organized 15 annual exhibitions of contemporary industrial art at the museum between 1917 and 1940.
The 1929 exhibition of Art Deco works was the biggest yet, inspired by the Art Moderne movement in Europe and particularly the 1925 Paris Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels). The Met exhibition, wrote Chappell, “should not be missed”…
Chappell found the exhibit to be “stimulating,” although he hoped designers in the future would “curb cleverness” and focus more on fundamentals:
Writing in the February 1929 Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Richard S. Bach posed bold questions for this new age: “What is the tempo of our day? What are the dominant elements of our culture, our activities, our thinking? Is this a speed age or are we sedate? Have we time to be dignified and stately about frills or are we air-minded? Do we wait for months, as once all did, for the silkworm to complete his labors before beginning to make thread from his cocoon…or (do we) make a few bales of vegetable silk out of chemically treated wood fiber between breakfast and lunch as a regular chore of a business week-day? And is this the mechanistic millennium which shrivels the soul and makes mockery of imagination, or are these fabulous industries, these automatic instruments of production, the means of bringing within range of vision the real potentialities of our crowded lives and of interpreting our aspirations and achievements?
Pumping Iron Into the Sky
The architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” when they designed a new Art Deco skyscraper to house the Downtown Athletic Club. Writing in Lost City News, Mary Hohlt cites the architect Rem Koolhaas, who sees the Downtown Athletic Club as “the ideal of a hyper-reality in the burgeoning urban form of hyper-density and congestion.” The Club is “the everything-at-your-fingertips self-improvement incubator for men…It is a place for men to indulge on self-improvement; to better themselves in a place only the constructed, hyper-reality of Manhattan can provide.”
Hohlt writes that Koolhaas sees the Downtown Athletic Club as a sterile place: “Towering in the sky, the Club removes men from the rest of the world and allows them a kind of aesthetic improvement that cannot be passed on.” E.B. White took a less jaded view in this “Talk of the Town” segment:
Another New Yorker who saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” was insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, who in 1928-29 erected a brick and terra-cotta Art Deco tower that could park 1,000 cars using an automatic elevator system.
Once again E.B. White was on hand to render this observation for “Talk”…
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Death of a Can-Can Dancer
The sad death of Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, was announced in Janet Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” column. Weber was a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and a model for some of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous cabaret paintings. Flanner wrote of La Goulue’s rise to fame…
…and her sad downfall into a life of poverty among the rag-pickers:
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From Our Advertisers
An advertisement on page 45 for Mohawk carpets featured two Cockney charwomen admiring the new carpets at the General Motors headquarters:
A corresponding note: Shreve & Lamb’s 1927 General Motors Building was the hub of Columbus Circle’s Automobile Row. A hideous 2012 remodel, which clad the entire structure in reflective glass, has rendered the former landmark unrecognizable:
Getting back to all things “moderne,” these facing ads on pages 8-9 offered some new looks for spring…
…and in the cartoons, a tongue-in-cheek vision of a modern high-rise by Al Frueh, prompted by the news that Florenz Ziegfeld planned to build a 44-story building in his native Chicago. Thanks to the market crash later in the year, it was never realized.
In drawings sprinkled across pages 24-25, Helen Hokinson examined various approaches to tax season, including these two examples…
…and finally, Peter Arno caught a theatre performer with his pants down…
Our sense of what is old and what it is new becomes skewed during periods of rapid change, and such was the case in 1920s New York when large swaths of the old city were swept away and replaced by massive towers that seemingly rose overnight. Places like the Hippodrome Theatre, a 1905 Beaux-Arts confection barely 24 years old, seemed positively ancient in those heady times.
For the most part the New Yorker was enthusiastic about the changing skyline, as its namesake was claiming the crown as America’s premier city; but occasionally a melancholy note would be struck when a familiar institution appeared in decline or fated for the wrecking ball. In the Feb. 9, 1929 “Talk of the Town,” E.B. White wistfully recalled the old days of the Hippodrome, once the largest theatre in the world and the pride of turn-of-the-century New York:
The Hippodrome held such a place in the heart of the New Yorker that the magazine offered further reminiscences in the Feb. 16 issue, this time penned by managing editor Harold Ross:
For demonstrations of diving and “mermaid spectacles,” the Hippodrome stage featured an eight-foot high steel tank in four sections, with a front of plate glass. Manned diving bells were also used to raise and lower “mermaids” during performances.
Ross wrote about the Hippodrome’s “diving girls,” who would dive into a tank of water from a height of 90 feet, sometimes at a serious cost to their health:
Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman was a big draw at the Hippodrome, and helped popularize the sport of synchronised swimming after her 1907 performance of the first water ballet in theatre’s giant plate glass tank. In that same year she shocked Bostonians by appearing on a local beach in a “daring” one‐piece bathing suit (shown above), and was arrested for indecency. This was at a time when a woman’s standard bathing apparel consisted of a blouse, skirt, stockings and swimming shoes.
Unlike some of the unfortunate Hippodrome divers who later lost their eyesight due to cranial pressure from high dives, Kellerman went on to a long and active life (she died in 1975, at age 88). Known throughout the world as Australia’s “Million Dollar Mermaid” (and portrayed by Esther Williams in a 1952 movie by the same name), Kellerman appeared in more than a dozen films between 1909 and 1924. She also launched her own line of swimwear and wrote several books on swimming, beauty and fitness.
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City of Lights
While E.B. White got misty-eyed about the old Hippodrome in the Feb. 9 issue, his fellow New Yorker writer and friend James Thurber was thrilling on the new skyscrapers lighting the city’s skyline:
Thurber noted that “100,000 candlepower” would light the golden crown of the New York Central Building, the tallest structure in the Grand Central complex. Over at the new Chanin Building, a whopping 25 million candle-power would be trained on its art deco crown.
Advertisers in the New Yorker reflected the mood of this new city of skyscraper canyons. From the Feb. 16 issue:
Ralph Ingersoll and Thurber also wrote in the Feb. 16 “Talk” about plans for “Rockefeller City…”
…and as we know, this was to become the famed Rockefeller Center, a complex of 19 buildings covering 22 acres between 48th and 51st streets. Led by by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the complex was conceived as an urban renewal project to revitalize Midtown (hard to imagine today). The land was originally envisioned as a site for a new Metropolitan Opera house, but when financing fell through the land’s owner, Columbia University, leased it to Rockefeller. Of the anticipated effect of the project, Ingersoll and Thurber wrote:
And for the record, the Feb. 9 issue featured another name that would shape the future of the city—J. Pierpont Morgan was the subject of a lengthy two-part profile penned by John K. Winkler.
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Shouts & Murmurs
The Feb. 16 marks a significant date on the New Yorker calendar—the first appearance of Alexander Woollcott’s famed “Shouts & Murmurs” column:
Writing in the “Double Take” section in the July 18, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Michaud notes that “Shouts & Murmurs” was Woollcott’s personal column, appearing weekly in the magazine for five years. Perhaps no person other Harold Ross himself could be more associated with the earliest origins of the magazine — Woollcott was a colleague of Ross’s at Stars and Stripes during the First World War, and introduced Ross to his first wife, Jane Grant, who was also a considerable influence on the early magazine.
Michaud writes that Woollcott used the column “to opine on, lampoon, and attack the culture and society of the day. In his distinct and at times excessive style, he reviewed books, wrote spoofs, distributed gossip, and generally rankled as many people as he could.” Woollcott ended the column in December 1934, but it was revived in 1992 as a regular venue for many notable humorists, and continues to this day.
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Up In Smoke
Jumping back to the Feb. 9 “Talk of the Town,” we have this complaint from the magazine regarding celebrity cigarette endorsements. Although the magazine derived a lot of revenue from cigarette ads, Harold Ross insisted on a strict separation between editorial and advertising, allowing his writers free reign to bite the hands that fed them, if they so wished:
Here’s the offending ad, which was featured in the Feb. 23 issue:
In the Feb. 9 issue, Groucho Marx couldn’t resist getting in on the endorsement action…
…nor could Ross’s old friend George Gershwin, who touted the health benefits of Lucky Strikes in the Feb. 16 issue…
In other ads from the Feb. 16 issue, we find that for all of the technological advances in the 1920s, a decent car heater still eluded automakers. Hence…
…on the other hand, we also have this very up-to-date product—the forerunner of today’s rolling airplane luggage…
…and if you happened to be flying south, you might have first checked in with Helena Rubinstein to make sure you had the right “face fashions”…
And finally our cartoons, all from the Feb. 9 issue. This first is a six-panel series by Al Frueh that originally ran diagonally, top to bottom, across a two-page spread. It took a shot at the self-promoting police commissioner, Grover Whalen, who was not a friend to the New Yorker due to his ham-fisted approach to Prohibition enforcement…
…and Leonard Dove took a shot at some posh folks outside of their urban element…
…and finally, Alan Dunn examined the wages of beauty…
Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.
In a post more than two years ago I wrote about Ellin Mackay’s pivotal essay, “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.” The debutante daughter of a multi-millionaire (who threatened to disinherit her due to her romance with Irving Berlin), Mackay explained that modern women were abandoning social matchmaking in favor of the more egalitarian night club scene. Mackay’s essay provided a huge boost to the struggling New Yorker, which had dipped to less than 3,000 subscribers in August 1925. A more recent post, “A Bird’s Eye View,” noted how a short story by Thyra Samter Winslow opened the door to serious fiction in the magazine.
The Dec. 8, 1928 issue was significant for a cartoon by Carl Rose that appeared on the bottom of page 27:
It remains one of the New Yorker’s most famous cartoons, and for good reason. In his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, Ben Yagoda writes that the cartoon (drawn by Rose, with spinach line provided by E.B. White) “was picking up on something in the culture: it was a moment when the air reverberated with the sound of speech.” Yagoda notes that although “the cartoons led the way,” the magazine has always been filled with the sound of voices in “The Talk of the Town.” Naturalistic rendering of speech could also be found under the heading of such features as “Overheard,” which ran from 1927-1929 and included such contributors as the young writer John O’Hara.
Another New Yorker contributor whose work resounded with the sound of speech, Robert Benchley, received some kind words from the magazine on his latest book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield:
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Appearing at the Civic Repertory Theatre (founded by actress Eva Le Gallienne in 1926) was Alla Nazimova and Eva herself in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard. Al Frueh offered this sketch for the theatre review section.
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Advertisements from the Dec. 8 issue offered this study in contrasts…a “modern” take on the holidays by Wanamaker’s, featuring the unfortunately titled “Psycho-Gifts for Christmas”…
…versus the staid offerings of Brooks Brothers on the following page…
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On to the Dec. 15 issue, we find the New Yorker enjoying the debut of the Ziegfeld Follies latest revue…
…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:
And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…
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On to less glamorous pursuits, the New Yorker also paid a visit to the new “Fish Wing” at the Museum of Natural History, as recounted in “Talk of the Town.” A brief excerpt:
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…comes this house ad from the New Yorker itself, promoting its first-ever Album:
Chris Wheeler has gathered all of the albums at this site.
Although the Roaring Twenties saw the relaxing of many moral strictures — particularly in major cities like New York — Mae West’s frank portrayals of sex on an off-Broadway stage could still create a stir in the newspapers and among arbiters of American probity.
Before she appeared in films (mostly in the 1930s) Mae West was well known to New Yorkers both in vaudeville and on Broadway. Her wider fame came in 1927, when many Americans read about her arrest on obscenity charges linked to a scandalous play simply titled Sex. A story of a Montreal prostitute, Sex opened at Daly’s 63rd Street Theatre on April 1926 to modest audiences and mostly scathing reviews. The New York Times, for example, called it a “crude and inept play, cheaply produced and poorly acted.” Perhaps because of the negative reviews, which mostly focused on the play’s morality, curious audiences flocked to see it. Ironically (at least, I imagine, to the critics), Sex was the only play on Broadway in 1926 to stay open through the summer and into the following year.
The fun ended when New York City police raided West’s production company in February 1927 and charged her with obscenity. In another ironic and hypocritical twist (many in the police department and in the city’s court system had enjoyed the play themselves, along with approximately 325,000 others during the play’s 10-month run), authorities fined West $500 and sentenced her to 10 days in a workhouse on Welfare Island. Always the entrepreneur, West used the sentence to her advantage, and even arrived at the prison in a limousine. It was during her short stint in prison that she began work on her smash hit Diamond Lil.
Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who often exposed the hypocrisy and prejudice in American life in her short fiction, profiled West for the Nov. 10, 1928 issue:
Note Winslow’s surprise to find West to be much smaller than she imagined (indeed, West barely stood five feet tall). Because West preferred a curvy, buxom figure to the thin flapper look, many like Winslow assumed her to be a much larger woman. No doubt her lavish costumes also suggested greater proportions:
West explained to Winslow that she was simply giving the people what they wanted, whether it was outlandish costumes or some “dirt” in their entertainments. Behind this facade, however, was a private, hard-working woman who wrote much of her own material and had the savvy to market it.
In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:
Winslow concluded her piece wondering if West had peaked in her success, and would “fade out” along with so many other vaudeville stars…
…. In less than seven years, West at age 42 would become Hollywood’s highest paid star and second only to William Randolph Hearst as the highest paid person in America. Ninety-two years after Sex, West remains an icon of popular culture around the world.
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The Nov. 10 issue featured this all American endorsement for Lucky Strike cigarettes from World Series winning pitcher Waite Hoyt…never mind that the New Yorker itself completely ignored the World Series and baseball in general.
…and Charles of the Ritz used a combination of vanity, snob appeal and class anxiety to promote their latest beauty ensemble…
The comics glimpsed the foibles of the upper classes, including this terrific entry by 22-year-old Ben Hur Baz, a Mexico-born artist who would go on to become famous for his pin-ups in the 1940s and 50s, many of them appearing in Esquire:
…and a game of blind man’s buff (or some say ‘bluff’) as rendered by Peter Arno:
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The Nov. 17 issue featured an unusual entry by E.B. White, who, like many of his New Yorker colleagues, found many reasons to be critical of the media, including the dumbing down of newspapers that increasingly favored trivia, sensation and promotion over serious discourse.
White skewered the news of the day in this two-page spread that parodied the look and language of contemporary newspapers (click to enlarge):
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The issue’s “Talk of the Town” featured a lengthy entry on Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, a figure greatly admired and generally lauded by the magazine’s sportswriters. A brief excerpt:
The Nov. 17 film reviews gave a rare thumbs up to an American movie, Show People, which starred Marion Davies.
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Although you couldn’t legally procure a drink in 1928, you could (unlike today) legally purchase of box of Cuban cigars for you special someone:
…or if you preferred, a carton Chesterfields. Apparently someone in marketing thought conjuring up the horrors of trench warfare would help sell some smokes…
And finally, Peter Arno found out what’s for dinner at the table of a great outdoorsman: