Race to the Sky

Almost 90 years after the lights went out on the Roaring Twenties, our collective imagination of New York City still harks back to that time…the sights and sounds of nightclubs and speakeasies and Broadway lights set to the tune of the Jazz Age.

Oct. 12, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

And no wonder, since that decade made the city what it is today. Changing social mores, along with labor-saving electrical appliances and the ubiquitous automobile, altered the tempo of life. And this quickened pace was also reflected in the built environment, old landmarks reduced to rubble while gleaming skyscrapers rose up in their place seemingly overnight. A Victorian edifice like the Waldorf-Astoria — little more than 30 years old — seemed positively ancient to Jazz Age New Yorkers, who unceremoniously knocked it down to make way for what would become the city’s most iconic landmark.

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) sensed that something big was on the horizon with his regular “Sky Line” updates on the city’s “tallest-building-in-the-world” contest. In the Oct. 12, 1929 issue he looked on admiringly as the Chrysler Building’s distinctive dome began to take shape:

IT’LL BE A SURPRISE…The Chrysler Building still lacked its gleaming art deco dome in this photo taken in the fall of 1929. At left is the Chanin Building, completed earlier that year. (adamunderhill.wordpress.com)

Chappell observed that the Chrysler Building’s claim as the world’s tallest would be short-lived, as plans for the Waldorf-Astoria site called for a much taller structure…

DOOMED…The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel (left), completed in 1897, was scarcely more than 30 years old when it was demolished to make way for the Empire State Building. The former governor of New York, Al Smith (inset) led the corporation that knocked down the old hotel and erected the world’s tallest building on the site. Demolition of the hotel began on October 1, 1929 (images at right). In his 2014 book The Empire State Building: The Making of a Landmark, John Tauranac observes the demolition was an arduous process, as the hotel had been constructed using more rigid material than what was found in earlier buildings. Those materials — granite, wood, and metals such as lead, brass, and zinc — were not in high demand. Most of the wood was deposited into a woodpile on nearby 30th Street or burned in a swamp. Other materials, including the granite and bronze, were dumped into the Atlantic near Sandy Hook, NJ. (New York Historical Society/New York Public Library Digital Gallery)
RISING FROM THE RUBBLE…The Empire State Building under construction in 1930. When completed in 1931, the 1,250 foot (1,454 with antenna) building would claim the title as the world’s tallest. It was something of a definitive victory, as the building held that record for nearly 40 years. (travelandleisure.com)

Although Al Smith’s building seemed assured to win the “world’s tallest” title, another giant was taking shape on the drawing boards…

LAND OF THE GIANTS…City Bank-Farmers Trust Building (left), now known as 20 Exchange Place, was originally designed in 1929 to be the world’s tallest building at 846 feet, but the realities of the Depression brought it down to a more modest 741 feet, making it the fourth-tallest building in New York when it was completed in 1931. At right, the 22-year-old Century Theatre on Central Park West was demolished to make way for Irwin Chanin’s Century Apartments, also completed in 1931. (Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com)

…while we are on the subject of skyscrapers, the New Yorker reprinted this illustration by Andre De Schaub to fill in a space at the bottom of page 54 in the Oct. 12 issue…

…the drawing originally appeared in the magazine three years earlier, as a cartoon in the October 16, 1926 issue. It included a caption: “High position on Wall Street” (thanks to Michael Maslin’s invaluable Ink Spill for helping me track this one down)…

As the demolition crews picked apart the old Waldorf, E.B. White wondered why more fanfare wasn’t attached to such occasions, whether they be demolitions or ribbon-cuttings…

NEEDS MORE HOOPLA…Al Smith with his wife Catherine Dunn Smith, and two of his grandchildren at the opening ceremony of the Empire State Building, May 1, 1931. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the building by pressing a button in the White House that turned on the building’s lights (it was merely symbolic; they were actually turned on by some unknown maintenance worker in New York). (Museum of the City of New York)

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A Novel Idea

My last post featured a brief excerpt of an Oct. 5 theater review by Robert Benchley, who sized up Elmer Rice’s new play, See Naples and Die. Rice pops up again in the Oct. 12 issue, this time as the author of A Voyage to Purilia, the first novel serialized in the New Yorker. The novel was a satire on the silent film industry, set in the fictional land of Purilia. Here is the first page of the piece, with illustrations provided by Peter Arno:

SENDING UP THE SILENTS…Elmer Rice in 1920; his satirical novel about the silent film industry, A Voyage to Purilla, was serialized in the New Yorker in 1929 and published the following year. It was re-published in the 1950s as a science fiction novel. (Wikipedia/Amazon)

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Siren Song

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes trained his discerning eye on the famed torch singer and speakeasy denizen Helen Morgan, attempting to understand the hard-living singer’s allure…

Helen Morgan, circa 1930. (masterworksbroadway.com)

RIGHT AT HOME…Helen Morgan made the draped-over-the-piano look of a torch singer her signature style. (Pinterest.UK)
LIGHTING UP BROADWAY…Helen Morgan (left) as Julie LaVerne in the original Broadway cast of Show Boat, 1927. It was her best-known role. At right, Morgan in Applause, 1929. (Pinterest/IMDB)

Seldes struggled to understand Morgan’s appeal, which seemed to draw from an assemblage of personas…

PLUMBING EMOTIONAL DEPTHS…Helen Morgan and Rudy Vallee in Sweet Music, 1935. (IMDB)

Seldes concluded that Morgan belonged with other artistic greats in her ability to create a sense of expectancy…

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The Invention of Distracted Driving

Writing in his “Motors” column, Nicholas Trott noted the advent of the car radio, a “new complication” to an “already over-elaborate existence.” Note that Trott viewed the car radio as something to be listened to while parked — car radios were fairly controversial back then, akin to driving while texting today.

EASY TO INSTALL…New Yorker automotive critic Nicholas Trott observed that cars were now being wired to receive radio sets (you still had to buy one and install it yourself). The system above featured battery-powered vacuum tubes, a dash-mounted dial and mono speaker. (hemmings.com)

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From Our Advertisers

To the refined owner of a Pierce-Arrow, a car radio would have been a crass novelty. After all, your driver was there to drive, and listen to your orders…

…unlike the Pierce-Arrow, which took pride in its heritage, the folks at Chrysler were known for their forward-thinking in design and technical innovation…

…on to some of the back page ads, we find appeals to flee the oncoming winter and escape to the golden sands of Waikiki…note the second ad, and its rather democratic invitation…

…and then we have the ads that hoped to catch the eye of the grasping Francophile, with delicacies from Louis Sherry or mock bubbly from the makers of applesauce…the second ad is particularly heartbreaking, the copy writer trying his or her best to conjure the glamour of Champagne from a bottle of apple juice. Zut!…

…fake Champagne isn’t for you? Well Leonard Dove offers us a salesman doing his best to sell a bottle of mock gin…

…returning to the ads, here’s one more from the back pages that references Harold Ross’s original prospectus for his magazine: “The New Yorker will be the magazine which is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” The ad is for Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden, where the art of burlesque got its start. Despite the cheapness of the ad and the implied salaciousness, uptown New Yorkers loved “slumming” at Minsky’s burlesque, including artists and writers (Hart Crane even wrote a poem called “National Winter Garden”). No doubt a few New Yorker staffers found their way inside as well…

Clockwise from top left, Billy Minsky’s National Winter Garden; a 1920’s burlesque performer; a ticket for two to the show. (New York Post/Amazon/Pinterest)

…on to the illustrators and cartoonists, a nice street scene by Reginald Marsh

John Held Jr. contributed one of his famed “woodcuts” to the Oct. 12 issue. Held was an old childhood friend of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. It was Ross who encouraged Held to deviate from his popular flapper caricatures — he recalled how his friend had produced clever woodcuts in high school, and wanted something similar for his magazine…

A John Held Jr. illustration for Life magazine, 1927. (Library of Congress)

Peter Arno went behind the scenes at a posh nightclub (a setting Arno was very familiar with)…

Helen Hokinson found confusion at the elections…

Perry Barlow offered up this sweet slice of family life…

…and Denys Wortman illustrated the power of the pen…

Next Time: City of Glass…

American Royalty

Although the United States declared its independence from British Empire nearly 250 years ago, the royal family and all of its requisite trappings persist in the American imagination like a phantom limb.

Oct. 5, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

E.B. White observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” section of the Oct. 5 issue, in which he offered his views regarding the “pother” over the wedding of Calvin Coolidge’s son, John, to Florence Trumbull, the daughter of Connecticut Governor John Harper Trumbull

White could have looked no further than the pages of the New Yorker for further evidence to his claims. The bourgeois yearnings of its readers were reflected in countless advertisements laced with anglophilic pretensions. Here are examples from 1929 issues we have previously examined:

LIVE LIKE A BARON…Ads from the New Yorker of the 1920s often featured illustrations of regal, priggish types such as the couple above, deployed to sell everything from apartments and ginger ale…
…to no-frills automobiles and menthol cigarettes. No product was too pedestrian for the royal treatment.

Writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” Robert Benchley commented further on the Coolidge-Trumbull nuptials in the “Wayward Press” column:

HEY CAL, IT’S A WEDDING, NOT A FUNERAL…The former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” for good reason, given his reserved demeanor that rarely produced a smile (although he apparently had a dry wit). He poses here at the wedding of his son, John. Left to right are Grace Goodhue Coolidge, President Coolidge, Florence Trumbull Coolidge, John Coolidge; Maud Pierce Usher Trumbull, and Gov. John Trumbull. (patch.com)
NOT EXACTLY KING’S ROAD…Onlookers line the street near the Congregational church in Plainview, Conn., hoping for a glimpse of the bride and groom, who were united in a simple ceremony. (AP)
CUTE COUPLE…Florence Trumbull and John Coolidge during their engagement, 1928. (crackerpilgrim.com)

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Modest Mussolini

We go from famous faces to infamous ones, namely the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, aka Il Duce, who received the adoration of his public while trying to remain inconspicuous at the cinema. “Talk” recounted…

NOW PICTURE HIM UPSIDE DOWN…A 1929 postcard image of the once-revered Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Sixteen years later he would be shot by his own people and strung up by his feet from the roof of a Milan gas station. (worthpoint.com)

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Going Down

“Talk” also commented on the growing trend for high-rise apartments to provide swimming pools and other amenities below street level:

TAKING THE PLUNGE DOWN UNDER…Few indoor swimming pools were available to New Yorkers during the 1920s. Two of the nicer ones were found underground at the Shelton Hotel (above) and the Park Central. Sadly, both pools no longer exist. In 2007 the Shelton’s pool was removed and the cavernous space was divided into three levels. I’m not sure when Park Central’s disappeared, but it’s fate was doubtless similar to the Shelton’s.(daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/hippostcard.com)

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How About a Catch?

As I’ve noted on previous occasions, the New Yorker of the 1920s all but ignored major league baseball. The magazine gave regular coverage to seemingly every sport, from hockey and college football to polo and yacht racing, but regular coverage of baseball was nonexistent, even when the Yankee’s Murderers’ Row (Ruth, Gehrig among others) won back-to-back World Series titles in 1927-28.

Still no coverage in the Oct. 5 issue, but the sport did get a brief mention in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…and the issue was filled with baseball imagery, including the cover…

The Oct. 5 issue was filled with baseball-related items, but no actual coverage of the games. Images from the issue included, from left, the cover by Theodore Haupt; a filler sketch by Constantin Alajalov; and a Johan Bull illustration of umpire Bill Klem for the issue’s “Profile” section.

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In a Sentimental Mood

Robert Benchley checked out George White’s latest version of his Scandals revue at the Apollo Theatre, and found the sometimes risqué show to be in a sentimental mood…

BETTER SENTIMENTAL THAN DEPRESSED…The chanteuse Frances Williams (pictured on the show’s sheet music and at right) likely provided the only spark to the 1929 edition of George White’s Scandals. (amazon/psychotronicpaul.blogspot.com)

Benchley also looked in on Elmer Rice’s latest, See Naples and Die, featuring veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert

VETERAN AND ROOKIE…Veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert headlined Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die. Colbert (pictured at right in a 1928 Broadway publicity photo) would go on to massive stardom in the 1930s. (Alchetron/Wikipeda)

Benchley applauded the veteran Herford’s performance, but found the otherwise reliable Colbert miscast as a wisecracking, Dorothy Parker type (Benchley, as we know, was close friends with Parker, so he knew what he was talking about)…

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An (Ugly) American in Paris

Off to Paris, we find correspondent Janet Flanner joining with Parisians in deriding the behavior of American tourists, who were on a course to drain every last drop from the ÎledeFrance before departing for the bone-dry USA:

DRINKING IN THE SIGHTS…American tourists at a Parisian café, circa 1920s. (tavbooks.com)

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Party Pooper

With her infant child (Patricia Arno) at home, it is doubtful Lois Long was seeing as much nightlife as she did during her first weeks at the New Yorker, when “nights were bold.” And indeed, her nightlife column “Tables for Two” would end for good in June 1930. Her Oct. 5 column took a cursory spin through the various nighttime offerings, ending on this note regarding a fan letter and a message from comedian Jimmy Durante:

THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA Jimmy Durante brought a smile to the face of Lois “Lipstick” Long. 

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From Our Advertisers

With the latest Paris fashions splattered across newstands all over Manhattan, retailers scrambled to get “replicas” to consumers…Macy’s had “couturier bags”…

…the Hollander Dressmaking Department was ready to make a perfect copy of Patou’s “Quiproquo”…

…and this Chanel frock could be had in misses’ sizes for $145 (roughly equivalent to about $2K today)…

…Philip Morris hadn’t yet discovered the “Marlboro Man,” and were still hawking their cigarettes through a “distinguished handwriting contest.” The latest winner was Edmund Froese

…who would go on to become a popular mid-century landscape painter…

Port of New York, by Edmund Froese (undated)

…another artist in the midst of our ads is Carl “Eric” Erickson, who created these lovely images for R.J. Reynolds that would induce people to take up the habit with a Camel…

…and then we have some rather unlovely ads from the back pages, including these two that would not go over well with today’s readers…

…or this from Dr. Seuss, still sharpening his skills with Flit insecticide…

…or this ad from Abercrombie & Fitch, wrong on so many levels…

…on to happier things, here’s an illustration by Reginald Marsh that ran along the bottom of “Talk of the Town”…(click to enlarge)

Alan Dunn found love in the air above the streets of Manhattan…

…and Leonard Dove revealed the hazards of apartment rentals…

Next Time: Race to the Sky…