Speakeasy Nights

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.

February 18, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

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”…

This illustration by Reginald Marsh accompanied Nevin Busch’s article.

LAST CALL…Images taken by photographer Margaret Bourke-White for Life magazine during the last days of Prohibition. (Time.com)
WHO GOES THERE?…The familiar slot in the door came in handy for speakeasy owners wishing to screen clients before allowing entry into their illegal lairs. (Chicago Tribune)
BETTER SWILL…The Marlborough House, an East Side speakeasy for socialites during Prohibition, 1933. Photo by Margaret Bourke-White for Fortune. (Time.com)

Busch also described his visit to the “Circus Speakeasy,” operated by a man who “travelled for 21 years with the Ringling Circus”…

A young Nevin Busch, circa 1930. (enetpress.com)
Busch and the third of his five wives, the actress Teresa Wright, in the 1940s. (danielmartineckhart.com)

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.

All Aboard

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.

AWARD-WINNING SMILES…George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in 1927’s acclaimed The Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. (The Red List)

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And finally, more hijinks from the moneyed classes, courtesy of Peter Arno:

Next Time: Amen Aimee…

Machine Age Bromance

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.

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January 21, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

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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WHAT NEXT, A CAR STEREO?…Thomas Edison (left) with his second phonograph, photographed by Mathew Brady in Washington, D.C., April 1878. At right, Henry Ford sits in his first automobile, the Ford Quadricycle, in 1896. (Wikimedia Commons)
By 1907 the two had forged a close friendship that would endure the rest of their lives. So it was no surprise that these two giants of the machine age would show up together at the New York Auto Show at Madison Square Garden and take a gander at the latest technical marvels, including Ford’s new “Model A.” The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was on hand as witness:

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MORE FUN THAN CONEY ISLAND…Thomas Alva Edison and Henry Ford observe an electric welding process at Ford Motor Company’s 1928 New York Auto Show. (AP Photo)
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IT SOLD LIKE HOTCAKES…Henry Ford and son Edsel introducing the 1928 Ford Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York City, January 1928. (thehenryford.org)

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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:

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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.

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FAREWELL TIN LIZZIE…White driving his beloved Model T in the 1920s.

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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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction for the murder of Snyder’s husband. They were executed Jan. 12, 1928. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)

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Ahoy there

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:

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An advertisement in the same issue touted Elco’s “floating home”…

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But if you aspired to something larger than a modest cruiser, the Boat Show also featured an 85-foot yacht…

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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!”

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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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PRETTY SWEET…A 1928 Chris-Craft Cadet. (Click to enlarge)

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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.

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And to achieve those lines, another advertisement advised young women to visit Marjorie Dork…

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…who seemed to do quite well for herself in the early days of fitness training…

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THOROUGHLY MODERN MARJORIE…New York beauty specialist Marjorie Dork, with her Packard, in New York’s Central Park, 1927. Original photo by John Adams Davis, New York. (Detroit Public Library)

And then there was a back page ad that said to hell with healthy living…

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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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Portrait of Lenore Ulric by New York’s Vandamm Studio. (broadway.cas.sc.edu)

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And we close with this post with a peek into the into upper class social scene, courtesy of Barbara Shermund…

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Next Time: Distant Rumblings…

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The Thurber Effect

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.

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September 17, 1927 cover by Julian de Miskey.

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.”

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ICONS…Thurber’s wall drawings installed in the New Yorker offices at One World Trade Center (Ink Spill)

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.

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NEW YORKER GIANTS…E.B. White and James Thurber in 1929. The two would share an office and become good friends. In 1929 they would collaborate on a best-selling book spoof, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. (xroads.virginia.edu)

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.

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James Thurber in undated photo. (thefamouspeople.com)

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.

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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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PASS THE WINDEX…Architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (connecticutmag.com)

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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:

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I CAN GOLF, TOO…Golfer Glenna Collett in the late 1920s. (alchetron)

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.

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LOOK FAMILIAR?…The illustration for this advertisement is by James Montgomery Flagg, who in 1917 created the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam illustration for the U.S. Army. (Period Paper)

Finally, another look at the changing cityscape in this cartoon by H.O. Hoffman:

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Next Time: Flapper Fitness…

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