The Last Dandy

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.

March 16, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

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:

Images (left and right) from the book, Gentlemen Prefer Blonds.

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)

(All images courtesy fulltable.com)

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:

Clockwise, from left: Ralph Barton poses with his old friend Charlie Chaplin for photographer Nickolas Muray in 1927; Barton with wife Carlotta Monterey in the mid-1920s; Carl Van Vechten’s portrait of Monterey with husband Eugene O’Neill in 1933, two years after Barton’s death. (Mimi Muray/allstarpics.com/Museum of the City of New York)

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.

PORTRAIT IN ANGUISH…Ralph Barton self-portrait, 1925. At right, Barton’s portrait of his third wife, Carlotta Monterey, from 1922. In 1926 Barton wrote, “The human soul would be a hideous object if it were possible to lay it bare.” (National Portrait Gallery/Mimi Muray)

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.

Babbitt Babble

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.”

SOMETHING HAS COME BETWEEN US…Dorothy Parker and Sinclair Lewis, circa 1930s. (Getty/B&B Rare Books/Library of Congress)

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:

DARLING, YOU SEEM RATHER COLD…Greta Garbo and Anders Randolf break bread amid the angular lines of an art deco dining room in the 1929 film The Kiss, set design by Cedric Gibbons. (pinterest.co.uk)

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Mexican Firecracker

Mexican actress and emerging star Lupe Velez caught the eye, and ear, of the New Yorker in her latest film, Lady of the Pavements

DUBBED THE ‘MEXICAN FIRECRACKER,’ Lupe Velez emerged as a star at the advent of sound motion pictures. Theatrical release poster, left, and Velez in a scene from D.W. Griffith’s 1929 film, Lady Of The Pavements. (Wikipedia/moviessilently.com)

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…

Next Time: Queen of the Night Clubs…

That Moderne Feeling

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.

March 9, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt. Between 1927 and 1933, Haupt would illustrate 45 covers for the New Yorker.

Before we delve into the Met’s exhibition, The Architect and the Industrial Arts, a quick note about the New Yorker’s Theodore 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.

THIS MIGHT TAKE AWHILE…The Six-Day Cycling Race at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome, 1932. (Victoria & Albert Museum)

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”…

PORTAL TO THE FUTURE…Entrance to The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Joseph Urban. The above exhibition poster (seen mounted on the doorway in the photo) was by W.A. Dwiggins. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Ornaments created by W.A. Diggins for the exhibition catalogue included, from left, “Conservatory,” for a section on  Joseph Urban; ornament on a page devoted to curator Richard F. Bach; “Backyard Garden” for a section on Ely Jacques Kahn; and an ornament that graced the acknowledgements page. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, via paulshawletterdesign.com)
NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S GARDEN…Mosaic semi-circular bench designed by Austin Purves, Jr. was featured in architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s “Backyard Garden” display by at the The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Pencil Points Magazine, January 1929)

Chappell found the exhibit to be “stimulating,” although he hoped designers in the future would “curb cleverness” and focus more on fundamentals:

DINING IN STYLE…A dining room designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen for The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
VISIONARIES…The Cooperating Committee for 1929 The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition were, standing, left to right, architects Raymond Hood, Eugene Schoen and Ely Jacques Kahn. Seated, left to right, architects Ralph T. Walker, John Wellborn Root, Jr. and Eliel Saarinen; ceramist, painter and graphic artist Leon V. Solon; and architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
COZY…Ralph Walker’s “Man’s Study for a Country House” at the The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (architectsandartisans.com)
ALL BUSINESS…Raymond Hood’s “Business Executive’s Office” featured at The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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 NewsMary 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.”

SELF-IMPROVEMENT INCUBATOR…the Downtown Athletic Club by Starrett & van Vleck, 1930. (4.bp.blogspot.com) click to enlarge

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:

STILL A WINNER…Famous for serving as the site of the annual awarding of the Heisman Trophy, the Downtown Athletic Club closed in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. The club was within a “frozen zone” closed to the public during the long clean-up that followed, and could not withstand the financial impact of such a long closure. It reopened in 2005 as a residential tower. (newyorkitecture.com)

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.

MONUMENT TO THE CAR…The May 1928 issue of Modern Mechanix featured this cutaway illustration of Milton Kent’s high-rise, automated parking garage. (boweryboyshistory.com) click image to enlarge

Once again E.B. White was on hand to render this observation for “Talk”…

HUMAN SCALE…Kent’s fantastic garage still stands at West 61st Street, but today it serves as—you guessed it—an apartment building. (boweryboyshistory.com)

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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…

JUST FOR KICKS… Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, circa 1890, and an 1891 poster by Toulouse-Lautrec advertising the performers La Goulue and “No-Bones” Valentin at the new Paris dance hall Moulin Rouge. (Wikipedia)

…and her sad downfall into a life of poverty among the rag-pickers:

SAD DECLINE…La Goulue, her face freshly powdered, sat on the steps of her small trailer for an unknown postcard photographer in the 1920s. This image is a detail of the original photograph, held at the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.

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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:

Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com

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…

Next Time: Babbitt Babble…

 

 

 

Million Dollar Mermaid

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.

Feb. 9, 1929 cover by Helen Hokinson. Feb. 16, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

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:

FOR THE MASSES…The Hippodrome, built in 1905, provided entertainment to millions of New Yorkers who couldn’t afford a ticket to a Broadway play. The brainchild of Frederick Thompson and Elmer S. Dundy, entrepreneurs of Coney Island’s Luna Park, the Hippodrome was torn down in 1939 after more than a decade of decline. (1905 photo courtesy Library of Congress)
A REALLY BIG SHOOO…One of the first performances at the Hippodrome was a four-hour spectacle: A Yankee Circus on Mars (advertised on the theatre’s marquee in photo above). The 1905 production included 280 chorus girls, 480 soldiers, a parade of cars driven by elephants, an equestrienne ballet, acrobats, and a cavalry charge through a lake. (Image from Harper’s Weekly via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)
The Hippodrome’s main theatre could accommodate 5,300 patrons in seats that were four inches wider than normal theatre seats. The dome over the “Roman style” auditorium encompassed an acre. (Broadway Magazine 1905 via daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

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.

OLD TIMEY FX…Illustration from Nature magazine (left) depicts a diving bell used in the Hippodrome’s swimming and diving tank to raise and lower performers. At top, circa 1910 advertisement; at bottom, the “Court of the Golden Fountain” in the the theatre’s 1905-06 presentation of A Society Circus. (les-sources-du-nil.tumblr.com/flickr/NYC Architecture)

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:

HIPPODROME’S HEYDAYS…In the early 1900s Australian swimmer and diver Annette Kellerman (left, in an image from her 1918 book, How to Swim) was a famed performer at the Hippodrome, as was illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini, shown here in 1918  with Jennie the Elephant in a performance of the vanishing elephant trick. (Monash University/americaslibrary.gov/wildabouthoudini.com)
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID…famed around the world by that moniker, swimmer and later actress Annette Kellerman is considered the originator of the one‐piece bathing suit, which she models at left in a photo taken around 1907. At right, advertisement for Kellerman’s 1916 film A Daughter of the Gods (now lost), in which Kellerman achieved another first: the first complete nude scene by a major star. The William Fox Studio made much of Kellerman’s figure, promoting her as the perfect woman by “comparing” her measurements to the likes of Cleopatra and Venus de Milo. (Wikipedia/consumingcultures.net)

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.

ALL WET…At top, Annette Kellerman swimming underwater in a gold sequined dress, possibly from  Queen of the Sea (1918, now lost). Thirty-four years later Esther Williams (below) would portray Kellerman in Million Dollar Mermaid. (historycouncilnsw.org.au/gsgs/movieactors.com)

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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:

BEJEWELED CROWN…The New York Central Building depicted in a 1929 promotional painting by Chesley Bonestell. (albanyinstitute.org)

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.

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…At left, the nearly 700-foot-tall Chanin Building joined the race for the sky in 1928-29. At right, a 1929 drypoint etching by Australian-born artist Martin Lewis depicted the magical glow of the Chanin Building from the viewpoint of a tenement dweller on a fire escape. (favrify.com/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

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.

A REAL CHARACTER…Alexander Woollcott, in his idea of casual wear. He once informed his friend and New Yorker colleague Corey Ford: “Ford, I plan to spend three days at your house in New Hampshire next week.” Not overly pleased to be hosting such a demanding guest, Ford uttered a meek “That will be swell.” “I’ll be the judge of that,” Woolcott warned him. (From Elizabeth Olliff, “An Evening at the Algonquin.”)

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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…

Next Time: Modern English Usage…

Out of the Mouth of Babes

Like many publications, there are defining moments in the New Yorker’s history that make the magazine what it is today.

December 8, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

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:

DON’T BE SERIOUS…Robert Benchley and his book, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or David Copperfield, illustrated by his New Yorker colleague Gluyas Williams. The cover depicted Benchley performing his famous sketch, The Treasurer’s Report. (Goodreads/bio.com)

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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.

Josephine Hutchinson as Anya, Alla Nazimova as Ranevskaya, and Paul Leyssac as Gayev in Anton Chekov’s last play, The Cherry Orchard, at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1928. (eBay)
TOUR DE FORCE…Eva Le Gallienne in 1928, photo by Edward Steichen. (Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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From Our Advertisers

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…

December 15, 1928 — issue number 200 — cover by Julian de Miskey.

…the show “Whoopee” at the New Amsterdam, featuring Eddie Cantor:

HIT MAKER…Sheet music for the hit “Love Me Or Leave Me” from the Ziegfeld Follies show Whoopee. At right, a still from the 1930 film Whoopee!, with Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor. (carensclassiccinema/thejumpingfrog.com)

And lest you think audiences were flocking to only see Eddie Cantor…

LAVISH, LAVISH!…At left, Ziegfeld Follies performer Jean Ackerman in Whoopee! At right, Ziegfeld performer Ruth Ettig’s rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me” in Whoopee made it a major hit as well as her signature song. (mote-historie.tumblr.com/Alfred Cheney Johnston)

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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:

SWIMMING WITH THE FISHES…A visitor admires the mako shark exhibit at the Hall of Fishes in the American Museum of Natural History, 1948 (AMNH)

From Our Advertisers…

…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.

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: Happy 1929!

 

Diamond Mae

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.

Nov. 19, 1928 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

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 examplecalled 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.

NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION…Mae West in a publicity photo from 1926. At right, promotional poster for Sex, which touted the play as the “Biggest Sensation Since The Armistice.” (maewest.blogspot.com/boweryboyshistory.com)

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.

TOO MUCH FOR YOUR TICKER?…Mae West tangles with Barry O’Neill in this 1926 publicity still for Sex. The image came with a warning no doubt cooked up by West herself: “If you cannot stand excitement—see your doctor before visiting Mae West in Sex.” (Bettmann/Corbis)

In her profile, Winslow noted West’s marketing savvy during her incarceration, where she won many new friends along the way:

ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE…Mae West with Sex co-star Barry O’Neill during a 1927 trial for obscenity charges. During the trial the judge asked the defendant: “Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?” West replied, “On the contrary, your Honor. I was doin’ my best to conceal it.” (gvshp.org)

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.

ALL THAT GLITTERS…Drawing of Mae West that accompanied the New Yorker profile. At right, publicity photo for Diamond Lil, 1928. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

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.

Nov. 17, 1928 cover by Sue Williams.

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.

HE LOOKS FAMILIAR…William Haines (left) and Marion Davies meet Charlie Chaplin in the 1928 Hollywood send-up film, Show People, directed by King Vidor. Chaplin made this rare appearance as himself, without his “Little Tramp” makeup. He was uncredited in the film, and asked to be paid the extra’s fee of only $7.50. (silent-volume.blogspot.com)

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From Our Advertisers

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:

Next Time: What Santa Brought in 1928…

 

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

A Bird’s Eye View

The New Yorker’s E.B. White was an aviation enthusiast who rhapsodized about his flights into the clouds, but also had prescience to see the darker side of this modern thrill ride.

October 6, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Writing in the “Reporter at Large” column for the Oct. 6, 1928 issue, White described his visit to Curtiss Field, where he inquired about a pilot who could fly him over New York City. He was told someone named Bill would take him up.

EARLY BIRD…This Fairchild FC-2 Cabin Monoplane, with strut-supported wing, was probably similar to the plane E.B. White rode in his flight over New York City. (Quora)

After a half hour wait, a man in a gray felt hat and sack suit offered White a cigarette and said, “You want to fly over New York?” Although the man didn’t look like a pilot, White followed him to a “little cabin monoplane.” Without saying another word the man took the plane up into the air, much to White’s surprise:

FLYBOY…E.B. White (left) with friend and New Yorker colleague James Thurber in 1929. (University of Virginia)

White described the various sites from 800 feet up, including Coney Island, a view at once beautiful and foreboding…

AMUSING SIGHT…Aerial view of Coney Island in 1920. (Pinterest)

…and the thrill of the approaching city skyline as his plane soared up the Bay toward Manhattan:

Lower Manhattan looking northeast from the Bay in July 1927. This is approximately the view described by E.B. White as his plane approached Manhattan. (Favrify.com)
A closer view of lower Manhattan as it would have appeared to E.B. White on his 1928 flight over New York City. (Fairchild Aerial Survey photo, 1928)

Once over the city, White could not help but contain his exuberance, soaring high above the towering spires and teeming crowds below:

And yet as I noted earlier, his observations were tinged with melancholy and foreboding. In describing his flight over Coney Island, for example, White concluded that “the world in general seems sadly beautiful, it is so soon to be gone entirely.”

Perhaps he referred to the rapid changes seen daily in the city during the 1920s, when nothing seemed permanent. Or did this bird’s eye view suggest something else to White? Twenty years later, in his 1948 essay “Here is New York,” White would write:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Unlike 1928, White had the hindsight of World War II, of entire cities leveled by waves of heavy bombers, or in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just a single bomb. The foreshadowing of 9/11 is contained in his words as well.

Back on the ground at Curtiss Field, White would finally learn the identity of the man who didn’t look like a pilot, but had just flown him over the city:

Another Vantage Point

With buildings rising ever higher in Manhattan, you could get a pretty good view of the surrounding city by taking an elevator to the rooftop of the latest skyscraper. The Oct. 6 “Talk of the Town” found a good perch atop the 680-foot-tall Chanin building on the southwestern corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…The Chanin Building at Lexington and 42nd. Sloan & Robertson Architects, 1928. (Favrify.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Something you never see in the New Yorker anymore, or in most magazines for that matter, are ads promoting various brands of gasoline. This one touts the benefits of Tydol, produced by the (now defunct) Tide Water Oil Company of New York:

For our Oct. 6 cartoon, here is one of Rea Irvin’s occasional multi-panel, two-page comic spreads, this one exploring the ordeal of a man who couldn’t think of the word for a type of natural plastic used in the 1920s (click to enlarge image):

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The Oct. 13, 1928 issue featured a notable short story by Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who contributed nearly a dozen pieces to the New Yorker in 1927 and 1928.

October 13, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Her short story on page 25, “But for the Grace of God,” was a “key transitional work” for the magazine, according to Ben Yagoda in his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. He writes: “Realistic fiction thrives in periods of social ambiguity and flux, and the attention to class was on of the factors working to propel New Yorker writing from two-dimensional sketches to fleshed out short stories.” Yagoda observes that Winslow’s story, “in its carefully selected details, its mild epiphany, and its attention to the potency of class…is an accomplished and poignant piece of short fiction.” Excerpts:

GROUNDBREAKER…Thyra Samter Winslow, circa 1920s. She wrote more than 200 pieces for New York magazines between 1915 to 1955, as well as Hollywood screenplays, early television scripts, and several books. She was married to New Yorker staff writer Fillmore Hyde. (playinginthepages.blogspot.com)

You can read more about Thyra Samter Winslow in Savannah Fry’s excellent blog, Playing the Pages.

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The New Yorker continued its stubborn refusal to report on baseball in its sports section, even though the Yankees were in the process of taking their second consecutive World Series title with a 4-0 sweep over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The magazine did, however, mention the game in the Oct. 13, 1928 “Talk of the Town” — not on how it was played, but rather on how the championship money was distributed among players and assistants:

Money matters in the game of sport were more informal 90 years ago, with players themselves divvying up money to other players, trainers, mascots and batboys. For example, in 1927 Yankees batboy Eddie Bennett received $700 for the one-eighth World Series share voted him by the team. This sum earned over the four days of the series nearly equalled a batboy’s pay for a full year.

GOOD LUCK CHARM…Yankee batboy Eddie Bennett in the 1920s. Although a spinal injury as an infant left him hunchbacked, Bennett would serve as Yankee batboy for 12-years — a period that would include seven pennants and four World Series titles. (sabr.org)

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Although European-inspired modern furniture was all the rage among certain members of the New York smart set, writer Joseph Fulling Fishman (best known for his writing on contemporary prison conditions) offered a dissenting view in the Oct. 13 edition. An excerpt:

In the art review section, critic Murdock Pemberton also seemed a bit perplexed by modern design, in this case by the work of Ukrainian-born avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko. His Archipentura was an electronic machine that displayed pre-loaded images of a female undressing by rolling painted canvas through a complex system of sprockets and belts. He intended the machine “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” Pemberton observed:

THINK DIFFERENTLY…Alexander Archipenko (right, circa 1920), intended his intended his Archipentura machine (pictured in front and side views) “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” (Wikipedia/Archipenko Foundation)

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From Our Oct. 13 Advertisers

Yet another endorsement for cigarettes from the posh set. This time Melachrino Cigarettes got in on the action with this endorsement by Augusta Barney Harriman.

For our cartoon, Peter Arno once again looked in on the mannerisms of the upper class, contrasting a lithe young flapper with the imposing presence of a battle-axe. Note how the young woman uses the archaic British “mater” in reference to her mother…

Next Time: The Prohibition Portia…