Modernism Lite

Above: “The Fountain of Youth” mural by Ezra Winter in the Main Foyer of Radio City Music Hall. (Architectural Digest)

The opening of two new theaters at Rockefeller Center no doubt brightened a few souls at the start of 1933, but art and architecture critic Lewis Mumford wasn’t particularly dazzled by the “watered-down” modernism of the buildings’ much-ballyhooed decor.

Jan. 7, 1933 cover by Rea Irvin, in a nod to the annual automobile show in New York City.

Oddly, it was a philosophy professor from Nebraska, Hartley Burr Alexander, who was tasked with creating an artistic vision for Rockefeller Center, developed along the theme of “Frontiers of Time.” According to Mumford, Alexander’s “classic-banal” vision, executed under the “virtuous glare” of theatrical impresario Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothafel, resulted in the first “large-scale vulgar tryout of modern art.” Excerpts from Mumford’s column:

Several aluminum sculptures in Radio City Music Hall no doubt pleased Mumford — Gwen Lux’s Eve sculpture, William Zorach’s Spirit of the Dance, and Robert Laurent’s Goose Girl. However, thanks to Roxy Rothafel’s “virtuous glare” and worries that the nudes might hurt ticket sales, all three sculptures were temporarily banned from RCMH.

NAKED AND AFRAID…A flare-up of puritanism led to the temporary removal of aluminum sculptures at Radio City Music Hall. At left, Eve by Gwen LuxRobert Laurent (right) working on Goose Girl in his studio. Below, William Zorach’s Spirit of the Dance. (Smithsonian/

Radio City Music Hall also featured an array of murals that should have brought some delight to Mumford…

SHOW BEFORE THE SHOW…Radio City Music Hall featured a number of murals including, clockwise from top left, a detail of Donald Deskey’s The History of Nicotine (The Life of Saint Nicotine) in a second floor men’s lounge; a textile piece titled The History of Theatre by Ruth Reeves, which covers the back wall of Radio City Music Hall; Stuart Davis’s mural Men without Women in the  men’s lounge; Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s mural in the women’s powder room. (

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Mea Cuppa

“The Talk of the Town” shared this account of fifteen Harvard freshman who dared to pay a call on the home of visiting poet T.S. Eliot

TEA-DIUM…Fifteen nervous Harvard freshman confronted this visage until one of them finally broke the ice. Photo above taken during one of T.S. Eliot’s visits to Monk’s House, the 16th century cottage of Virginia Woolf. (

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Country Cousins

During his 1932 presidential campaign Franklin D. Roosevelt paid a Sept. 29 visit to the Waterloo, Nebraska farm of Gustav “Gus” and Mary (Kenneway) Sumnick. Mary served FDR a chicken dinner and pie before he addressed a crowd of 8,000 at a rally on the Sumnick farm. Gustav, a German immigrant, and Mary, a daughter of Irish immigrants, were successful farmers even during those tough years. The visit would turn the Sumnicks into national celebrities, and in later years FDR would return to visit the family and would also stay in touch by telephone. Howard Brubaker, in “Of All Things,” made this observation about the celebrated farm family:

TIME FOR SOME VIDDLES!…Mary Sumnick chats with presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt during his Sept. 29, 1932 visit to the Sumnick farm. (
ENOUGH FOR A FOOTBALL TEAM…A lengthy article in the Dec. 4, 1932 New York Times described life on the Sumnick farm and their upcoming visit with President Roosevelt in the spring. Gus and Mary and their 11 children all planned to make the trip. (NYT)

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The Gang’s All Here

Siblings Ethel, John and Lionel Barrymore of the famed Barrymore theatrical family appeared together in just one film — Rasputin and the Empress — and you would think that would have been enough to guarantee multiple awards along with box office gold. However, the film actually lost money, and on top of that attracted a lawsuit that further dipped into the pockets of MGM producer Irving Thalberg. Critic John Mosher was wowed by Ethel’s performance, but wasn’t exactly charmed by the overall production:

ACTING ROYALTY ACTING ROYAL…John Barrymore, Ethel Barrymore, and Lionel Barrymore with child actor Tad Alexander in Rasputin and the Empress. It is only film in which all three siblings appeared together. (Pinterest)

About that lawsuit: The film used the real-life Princess Irina Yusupov as a model for Princess Natasha, portrayed by English actress Diana Wynyard. The film implied that Rasputin raped Princess Natasha (that is, Irina), which wasn’t true, so she sued MGM and won $127,373 from an English court; MGM reportedly  settled out of court in New York for the sum of $250,000 (roughly equivalent to nearly $5 million today). The ubiquitous “all persons fictitious” disclaimer that appears in TV and film credits is the result of that lawsuit.

NO HARD FEELINGS?…English actress Diana Wynyard (left) portrayed Princess Natasha in the Barrymore family vehicle Rasputin and the Empress. Her portrayal, however, drew the ire of a real Russian royal, Princess Irina Yusupov, who successfully sued MGM in 1933 for invasion of privacy and libel. (Wikipedia)

A much-less controversial film was the “glib” No Man of Her Own, a pre-Code romantic comedy-drama starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard in their only film together:

LET’S PLAY HOUSE…Clark Gable romances Carole Lombard in the pre-Code romantic comedy-drama No Man of Her Own. It was their only film together, and several years before they became a married couple in real life. (

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The annual National Automobile Show opened at the Grand Central Palace and other locations in Midtown, promising an array of affordable models:

DECISIONS, DECISIONS… The 1933 National Automobile Show offered a number of affordable options to car buyers including these shiny new Pontiacs on display at the Grand Central Palace. (
BUT LOOK OVER HERE…General Motors also displayed its models at the first “Motorama” held in the Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom in 1933. (

Auto Show visitors also got a glimpse of their streamlined future in the form of a 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow…

FAST & FURIOUS…Powered by a V12 engine, the aerodynamic 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow could exceed 100 miles per hour. Unveiled at the 1933 National Automobile Show, the car grabbed the spotlight with its futuristic, streamlined design. Just five of these were built, and only three are known to exist today. The Silver Arrow was one of Pierce-Arrow’s final attempts to appeal to its wealthy clientele, but even they were feeling Depression’s pinch. The company folded in 1938. (Sotheby’s)

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From Our Advertisers

The New Yorker had unusually thin issues over the holidays, so the magazine’s bean-counters must have been thrilled by the dozens of ads that poured in ahead of the National Automobile Show. As usual Walter Chrysler took out several two-page ads to promote his Chryslers, Plymouths, Dodges and DeSotos…

…while GM one-upped Walter with its own series of two-pagers — in color — sprinkled throughout the magazine…everything from the affordable Oldsmobile…

…to the high-end Cadillac…

…General Motors also featured this Peter Arno-themed ad (with sugar-daddy walrus) to promote its posh new venue at the Waldorf-Astoria…

…the folks at struggling Hupmobile tried to wow not with shiny cars but rather with the announcement of their…drum roll, please…annual report…

…companies that supported the auto industry also got in on the act, including the makers of leaded fuel…this image says a lot about the lack of safety concerns in the 1930s…

John Hanrahan, who early on served as the New Yorker’s policy council and guided it through its lean first years, be­came the publisher of Stage magazine (formerly The Theatre Guild Magazine) in 1932. In 1933 Stage became part of the Ultra-Class Magazine Group’s line-up that included Arts & Decoration and The Sportsman. Stage published its last issue in 1939, and I don’t believe the other two survived the 1930s either…

ULTRA-CLASS GROUP was the over-the-top name used to describe this line-up of magazines.

…on to our cartoons, we join Peter Arno for some fine dining…

…based on the what we have seen lately from William Crawford Galbraith, he seems to be hung up on seductresses and showgirls…

…to my point, some of Galbraith’s recent entries…

…we move on to Richard Decker and a dangerous cold front…

Garrett Price pondered the wisdom of children…

Gluyas Williams was back with the latest industrial crisis…

Perry Barlow found some ill-fitting words to go with an ill-fitting coat…

…and we close with James Thurber, and some very fitting words for those times, and ours…

Next Time: March of Time…


On the Flatfoot Beat

In 1929, some of New York’s Finest also enjoyed working at one of the finest police headquarters to be found anywhere.

July 20, 1929 cover by Leonard Dove. Note the construction worker’s whoopee cap—a popular hat among laborers, especially auto mechanics, in the 1920s and 30s. Hardhats did not come into general use until the late 1930s and 1940s. In popular culture, the whoopee cap was worn by the gas station attendant “Goober” on the Andy Griffith Show. The character “Jughead” also sported one in the Archie comic book series.

NYPD’s elegant headquarters at 240 Centre Street, designed by architects Hoppin & Koen, were built in 1909 to serve a newly consolidated police department charged with overseeing the city’s five boroughs (which had been united a decade earlier). Made of Indiana limestone, the building included 75 basement cells, a drill room, and a gymnasium.

VROOM VROOM…New York City motorcycle police, circa 1929. (Pinterest)

Writing for the July 20, 1929 “Reporter at Large” column, Niven Busch, Jr. looked in on a day in the life of the 20-year-old headquarters:

WHERE THE ACTION IS…Clockwise, from top left: Postcard depicting the new police headquarters at 240 Centre Street, built in 1909 to serve the newly consolidated five-borough police department; a woman in a cell at the Tenderloin station, probably similar to the cells described in Busch’s article; prisoner posing for a mug shot; the building’s Rogues Gallery. All images from 1909. (Ephemeral New York/Library of Congress (3)) click to enlarge images

Busch described the morning routine of lining up prisoners in the gymnasium for their mug shots…

…and how confiscated weapons were stored, and periodically dumped into the Narrows…

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA…Weapons seized in Chinatown by the NYPD in 1922. The police periodically dumped their inventory of seized weapons into the Narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island. (NYPD Public Records)

Busch also described the methods used by “drug peddlers,” and the prevalence of drug use among perps:

Where detectives gathered and where prisoners were once processed is now home to luxury condos in a posh district called “Nolita” (although some folks still call the area “Little Italy”)…

CRIME DOES NOT PAY?…The 1909 Police Headquarters Building at 240 Centre Street was remodeled into luxury co-op apartments in 1988. A contemporary photo of the lobby gives some idea of the elegance of the old HQ. Adding to that elegance, the area surrounding the building is no longer “Little Italy.” Rather, it is surrounded by posh shops in an area now known as “Nolita.” (street
Another view of the sumptuous lobby at 240 Centre Street. (

…and in the gymnasium where hardened criminals once lined up for mugshots we now find a four-bedroom condo that has been priced as high as $31 million (but now valued at about half that amount)…

Architect Charles Gwathmey designed this 6,600-square-foot condo in what was once the police gymnasium—which also functioned as the room where mugshots were taken. On and off the market since 2008, at one point the asking price was $31 million. (

…and at the top of the building, a 5,500-square-foot penthouse can be found in the central clock tower. Spanning four stories and including two kitchens, a media room, a library, an elevator, the space was once owned by Calvin Klein

The penthouse at the top of the old police headquarters spans four stories. It has been priced as high as $40 million. (Architectural Digest)

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Before Bow Bowed Out

One of the biggest stars of the silent film era, Clara Bow (1905-1965) made a successful transition to the “talkies,” thanks in part to her huge and loyal following. But as the Roaring Twenties slowly lost its fizz, one of its biggest icons also seemed a bit flat in the new age of sound motion pictures. And indeed, Bow herself would walk away from it all two years later, retiring to her Nevada ranch at the age of 25. In the July 20 issue, the New Yorker reviewed Bow’s first talking picture, Dangerous Curves:

Clockwise, from top left, Kay Francis and Clara Bow as circus performers in 1929’s Dangerous Curves; Bow with clown in publicity shot for the movie; promotional poster; with co-star Richard Arlen, who also appeared with Bow in the 1927 romantic war picture, Wings. (Pinterest)

And while we are on the topic of celebrity actors, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Ethel Barrymore (1879-1959),a prominent member of the famed, multigenerational Barrymore acting family…

“Talk” mentioned Barrymore’s children, including an “oldest son, Russell,” but there is no mention of such a child in any records. My best guess is that her oldest son, Samuel, went by his father’s name—Russell Griswold Colt. Barrymore and Colt divorced in 1923, and she never remarried…

Clockwise, from top left, Ethel Barrymore circa 1930; Siblings John Barrymore (standing) Lionel Barrymore, and Ethel with John’s son, John Barrymore Jr, who was the father of Drew Barrymore (inset); cover of program for Scarlet Sister Mary; Ethel with her children Samuel Peabody Colt, Ethel Barrymore Colt and John Drew Colt in the 1930s. (

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with an “open seat poncho” offered by B. Altman to those unfortunate souls who were relegated to the rumble seat. I am perplexed by this feature in some early autos—it looks kind of fun if you’re a kid, but I can’t imagine a worse place to sit in a car. Not only are you open to the elements, but you’re also subject to peltings by dust, gravel, rocks and other road debris, not the mention the exhaust your sucking into your lungs sitting near the tailpipe. And then you are positioned over the car’s rear axle—must have been a chiropractor’s dream…

…and that exhaust you were breathing likely contained tetraethyl lead, which helped to eliminate the “knock” in your engine…

…perhaps a better way to travel—if you could afford it—was a combination of rail and air, a service supervised by a “staff of experts” headed by none other than Charles Lindbergh

…when we think of the cigarette ads of yore, the “Marlboro Man” typically comes to mind. But Marlboro wasn’t the first to trade on the macho image of the working cowboy. That honor goes to the makers of menthol-cooled Spud cigarettes…

…and how was Marlboro being marketed at this time? Well, they were still exploiting young women who had been conned into participating in a “handwriting contest”…

…as for the makers of Lucky, they continued to get endorsements from some of the biggest celebrities of the day. In this ad we have English actress, singer and dancer Gertrude Lawrence (1898 – 1952). I have to say the drawing does not resemble her much at all…

SHE REALLY DID REACH FOR A LUCKY…Gertrude Lawrence enjoying a smoke with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr in 1939 (photo by Dorothy Wilding); a 1932 portrait of Lawrence by Paul Tanqueray; Lawrence and Noël Coward in Private Lives, 1931 (
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…our comics are courtesy of Denys Wortman…

…and G. Wright…

Next Time: Ride of the Century…


Oh Those French

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Oct. 24 cover by Max Ree.

Apparently even Parisians have fashion lapses from time to time. Janet Flanner (Genêt) reported with some alarm a “curious phenomenon” from Paris in the Oct. 24, 1925 issue of The New Yorker.

It seemed that the otherwise fashionable Parisians were slumming it a bit and had adopted a dowdy look previously associated with residents of the British Isles. (The un-dowdy image at the top of the page is French designer Sonia Delaunay and her matching Citroen in 1925).

Apparently such pedestrian tastes had also caused a shift from formerly fashionable travel destinations on the Atlantic coasts to Mediterranean destinations:

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And to top things off, the French were agog over the latest Charlie Chaplin film, The Gold Rush (another French favorite of American clown-dom, Jerry Lewis, would be born the following year):

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But then there was another new distraction in town, the Autumn Salon:

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Pavel Tchelitchew, self-portrait, 1925 (Flickr)

Pavel Tchelitchew was known as a leader of “mystical surrealist” painting. He left his native Russia in 1920 and lived in Berlin before moving to Paris in 1923. There he became acquainted with Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell, the latter with whom he had a long-standing friendship.

The French were also on display in a comic piece by Theodore Shane, who also served as the magazine’s movie critic.

Shane wrote a piece titled “Fra~nce” in a style that suggested he was teaching children about France by dividing words into syllables (it was similar to a piece about Russia (“Rus~sia”) in the Aug. 29 issue, signed “Freudy”) Here’s a sample:

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A full-page ad on the Page 1 announced the “The Midnight Open” event at The 19th Hole Club in the Hotel Roosevelt, with an impressive lineup of golf professionals such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen and even “prominent amateurs” including Bobby Jones.

The Roosevelt Hotel, which opened in 1924 (Expedia)

I was surprised that the annual membership fee was advertised as only $10, which would roughly translate to $135 today—a bargain compared to what it costs today to join even the lowliest golf club.

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“Talk of the Town” welcomed news from Boston that “ladies are to be allowed to smoke in the open” in that city (drawing by Johan Bull):

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In a feature “Our Collegiate Hilltop,” Elmer Davis wrote about the droves of college students who had taken over much of the available housing along Morningside, “a ghetto for the Nordic native-born.” Davis offered this lament about Columbia’s continued creep into the surrounding neighborhoods (with accompanying art by Helen Hokinson:

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“Profiles” examined the life of “A Kind Man,” William Lyon Phelps. That title was not meant as a complement from writer Waldo Frank, but rather it was his “kindness” toward authors that caused him to praise books that were not worthy of praise and made him the personification of the “most American of disasters: the disaster of Good Intentions, when they are not fortified by intellectual hardness, when they are not drained of all sentimental juices.”

Ethel Barrymore in 1925 as Ophelia in Walter Hampden’s Production of Hamlet. (

In “The Theatre” Elsie Ferguson and Basil Rathbone were appearing in “The Grand Duchess and the Waiter” at the Lyceum (“an agreeable piece of work”), while Ethel Barrymore “wowed” critic Herman J. Mankiewicz with her performance as Ophelia in a revival of Hamlet at Walter Hampden’s theatre.

Or at least I think she wowed him. Mankiewicz knew and worked with the Barrymore family, and I wonder if his over-the-top style here is a wink to the fact that a 45-year-old Ethel was playing the part of a young virgin. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

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I hate to jump ahead, but in the Nov. 14 issue, “Talk of the Town” offered this humorous anecdote from one of Barrymore’s performances:

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In sporting news, John R. Tunis continued his coverage of rivalry matches staged at Yankee Stadium, this time the fiercely competitive Notre Dame vs Army matchup. Despite Notre Dame’s renown under Knute Rockne, Army was a worthy foe in the 1920s and in this particular matchup the Cadets blanked the Irish 27-0. The matchup between these teams was so popular that it was played at Yankee Stadium until 1947.

And finally, Lois Long sharpened her pencil and offered her thoughts on a dull dinner crowd at Pierre’s:

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A drawing by Peter Arno (who would marry Long in 1927) in another section of the magazine seemed to refer to Long’s lament:

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Long also offered some criticisms of a “new negro revue” that decidedly differed from the mainstream:

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A great illustration by Julian deMiskey of the Bellows exhibition at the Met:

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Next Time: Short-tempered about Temperance…

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