Before screenwriter Niven Busch headed to Hollywood in 1931, he cut his teeth as writer for the New Yorker, contributing a series of profiles (later compiled in Twenty-one Americans) as well as an intermittent series from May 1927 to Feb. 1930 on New York’s Prohibition-era speakeasies.
Always careful to shield the identity of speakeasy owners and patrons, Busch described the often less-than-glamorous digs of New York’s illegal watering holes. In a speakeasy called “The No Trump” (referring to card-playing, and not a future president), two Irish brothers took turns mixing drinks “on a kitchen table in a cubbyhole” while Busch sat in a darkened bar and listened in on a conversation coming from the adjoining “bridge room”…
Busch also described his visit to the “Circus Speakeasy,” operated by a man who “travelled for 21 years with the Ringling Circus”…
In his later years as a producer and screenwriter in Hollywood, Busch would script movies ranging from The Man With Two Faces (1934) starring Edward G. Robinson, to The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), with Lana Turner.
One of the prominent voices of the unsigned “Talk of the Town,” humorist E.B. White was also a regular contributor of short pieces in the New Yorker, such as the following which described a mistaken encounter on an overnight train:
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Another way to calm the jitters
If you couldn’t legally (or illegally) buy Johnny Walker Scotch whisky in 1928, you had to settle for their brand of “vacuumed-cleaned, extremely mild” cigarettes, which were apparently sold as late as the 1950s…
And to get a taste of what was showing at the local cinemas, I’ve included this page-and-third spread of movie and theatre ads from the back pages. Note the film Sunrise featured prominently at the top left-hand corner.
Starring George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, and Margaret Livingston, this 1927 silent romantic drama, directed by F.W. Murnau, used the new Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, making it one of the first feature films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects soundtrack. Sunrise (full title: The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans) won the Academy Award in the category “Unique and Artistic Picture” at the 1st Academy Awards in 1929, and Gaynor won the first Academy Award for “Best Actress in a Leading Role.” Sunrise is considered one of the greatest films of the silent era and even today is widely considered a masterpiece.
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And finally, more hijinks from the moneyed classes, courtesy of Peter Arno:
The great American inventor Thomas Edison was a hero to the young Henry Ford, who grew up to become something of an inventor himself with his pioneering development of the assembly line and mass production techniques. Over a matter of decades in the late 19th and early 20th century these two men would utterly transform the American landscape and our way of life.
Ford would first meet Edison in August 1896, at a convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies held at the Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn—it was just two months after the 33-year-old Ford had finished work on his first car—a “quadricycle”—consisting of a simple frame, an ethanol-powered engine and four bicycle wheels. In contrast, by 1896 the 49-year-old Edison was a worldwide celebrity, having already invented the phonograph (1877), the incandescent lamp (1879), public electricity (1883) and motion pictures (1888).
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E.B. Drives the ‘A’
In the same issue (Jan. 21, 1928) E.B. White told readers how to drive the new Model A—in his roundabout way. Some excerpts:
No doubt White was feeling a bit wistful with the arrival of the Model A, which supplanted its predecessor, the ubiquitous Model T. White even penned a farewell to the old automobile under a pseudonym that conflated White’s name with Richard Lee Strout’s, whose original submission to the New Yorker inspired White’s book.
In Farewell to Model T White recalled his days after graduating from college, when in 1922 he set off across America with his typewriter and his Model T. White wrote that “(his) own vision of the land—my own discovery of it—was shaped, more than by any other instrument, by a Model T Ford…a slow-motion roadster of miraculous design—strong, tremulous, and tireless, from sea to shining sea.”
The Eternal Debate
In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey commented on the execution of former lovers and convicted murderers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, noting that once again the debate over the death penalty had been stirred, but as usual there was no resolution in sight. Little could Markey know that we would still be holding the debate 89 years later, with no resolution in sight.
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The New York Boat Show was back in town at the Grand Central Palace, enticing both the rich and the not-so-rich to answer the call of the sea. Correspondent Nicholas Trott observed:
An advertisement in the same issue touted Elco’s “floating home”…
But if you aspired to something larger than a modest cruiser, the Boat Show also featured an 85-foot yacht…
But for the rest of the grasping masses, Chris-Craft offered the Cadet, an affordable 22′ runabout sold on an installment plan. Another ad from the issue asking those of modest means to answer “the call of freedom!”
For an affordable boat, the Chris-Craft was really quite beautiful—its mahogany construction puts today’s fiberglass tubs to shame…
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Odds & Ends
The boat show was one indication that spring was already in the air. The various ads for clothing in the Jan. 21 issue had also thrown off the woolens, such as this one from Dobbs on Fifth Avenue, which featured a woman with all the lines of a skyscraper.
And to achieve those lines, another advertisement advised young women to visit Marjorie Dork…
…who seemed to do quite well for herself in the early days of fitness training…
And then there was a back page ad that said to hell with healthy living…
The actress featured in the advertisement, Lenore Ulric, was considered one of the American theater’s top stars. Born in 1892 as Lenore Ulrich in New Ulm, Minnesota, she got her start on stage when she was still a teen, a protégé of the famed David Belasco. Though she primarily became a stage actress, she also made the occasional film appearance, portraying fiery, hot-blooded women of the femme fatale variety.
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And we close with this post with a peek into the into upper class social scene, courtesy of Barbara Shermund…
We’ve looked at a number of artists and writers who were instrumental in giving the New Yorker its unique look and voice, but few were more influential than James Thurber, who contributed some of the New Yorker’s most memorable writings (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) as well as some of its most enduring cartoons and illustrations.
In fact, Thurber’s art is so ingrained in the New Yorker’s culture that the magazine goes to great lengths to preserve some of his office wall drawings, which move along with the magazine each time it relocates. On his website Ink Spill,New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin writes “When you move, it’s always reassuring unboxing something you love from the old place and setting it down in the new place.”
In 1991, when the New Yorker prepared to leave its longtime home at 25 West 43rd Street (where Thurber originally doodled on a plaster wall), conservators carved several drawings from the wall and mounted them in protective glass. The drawings were eventually installed at the magazine’s new offices across the street at 20 West 43rd St. They were moved again when the New Yorker relocated to 4 Times Square in 1999 and then once more in 2015 to their current location at One World Trade Center.
Thurber joined the New Yorker staff in 1927, sharing an office “the size of a hall bedroom” with E. B. White, who had joined the magazine about a year earlier. According to Jon Michaud (in a June 2, 2010 New Yorker article), Thurber arrived at The New Yorker from Columbus, Ohio, via Paris, France, and a brief stint at the New York Evening Post. “Six months after he was hired, Thurber was transferred to the ‘Talk of the Town,’ where he found his feet as a reporter and did for that department what White did for ‘Notes and Comment’—he gave it an identity and a tone, which can still be heard in the magazine today.” This included introducing the convention of using the first person plural in “Talk” items.
His contribution to the Sept. 17, 1927 issue was not anonymous, however, as Thurber prominently signed his entire name–James Grover Thurber–at the end of a humorous essay, “Polo In The Home.” An excerpt:
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People in Glass Houses
Writing in her “About the House” column, Muriel Draper examined new uses for glass in modern design and concluded that houses built of glass rather than stone belonged to a distant future.
Well, Muriel was almost right. Philip Johnson built his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1949. Muriel Draper died in 1952. I assume she visited the house or at least knew of it, since she and Johnson were in New York social orbits that often aligned, especially around the Harvard modernists.
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So Much For Golf
The Sept 17 issue also featured a profile of golfer Glenna Collett. Writer Niven Busch began by describing how Collett’s physical appearance compared with other women golfers and athletes. Yes, it was 1927. Title IX was still 45 years away. Here are the first two paragraphs, and an illustration for the profile by Johan Bull:
On the topic of physical appearance, it is interesting compare the above photograph of Collett with a rendering used in this 1925 Elgin watch ad (from another magazine). It looks nothing like Collett, not to mention the golf club she is holding would barely reach her knees let alone the ground.
Finally, another look at the changing cityscape in this cartoon by H.O. Hoffman: