The Tragic Pose

In an age of toe-tapping musicals and screwball comedies — which served to distract from the grim realities of the Great Depression — one playwright was content to continue mining the deep veins of tragedy and pessimism than ran through the 1930s.

Nov. 7, 1931 cover by Margaret Schloeman.

A Chekhovian realistEugene O’Neill (1888 – 1953) had yet to write his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, but in 1931 he was already well established as America’s preeminent playwright. When his naturalistic Mourning Becomes Electra hit the Guild Theatre stage, New Yorker theatre critic Robert Benchley had little doubt about O’Neill’s greatness as a playwright, even if he wasn’t so sure about the play itself:

O’Neill’s tragic pose was borne from childhood, the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who became addicted to morphine after his difficult birth. His older brother, Jamie, would drink himself to death. It doesn’t end there. O’Neill’s own  two sons would commit suicide, and he would disown his remaining daughter, Oona O’Neill, when at age 18 she married silent film star Charlie Chaplin, 36 years her senior. An odd footnote: Chaplin was best friends with Ralph Barton, a cartoonist for the early New Yorker who took his own life after Eugene O’Neill married Barton’s ex, Carlotta Monterey. To close the loop, O’Neill and Monterey had a mess of a marriage between his alcoholism and her addiction to sedatives. No wonder the man rarely smiled.

WRONG MEDS, MY DEAR…Christine Mannon (Alla Nazimova) recoils from her husband, Ezra (Lee Baker) after giving him a poison that he mistakes for his heart medicine. At right, Christine and her daughter, Lavinia (Alice Brady), await the return of Ezra from battle. All three actors were part of the original cast of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which was a retelling of Oresteia by Aeschylus. (
FAMILIAR FACE…Eugene O’Neill made his third appearance on the cover of Time magazine for the Nov. 2, 1931 issue. He made a total of four appearances on the magazine’s cover (1924, 1928, 1931 and 1946). At right, cover of Guild Theatre program. (Time/Pinterest)
SAY CHEESE…Eugene O’Neill wore his familiar scowl in this undated portrait with his third (and final) wife, stage and film actress Carlotta Monterey. (

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Go West, William

When Mae West announced she was going to present a modern version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and play the part of Lady Macbeth, Wolcott Gibbs went to work on possible scenarios for such a production. Here is one of them:

LADIES MACBETH?…Actually, only two of these women made the cut to play Lady Macbeth. Gladys Cooper (center) appeared as Lady Macbeth in a 1935 production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre that lasted barely a month. The following year Edna Thomas (right) portrayed Lady Macbeth in a Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth with an all-Black cast. Orson Welles adapted and directed the production, which was staged at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. It became a box office and critical sensation.

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Those Hats Again

And now to E.B. White, who once again explored the mysteries of the Empress hat:

TAKE THIS, MR. LIPPMANN…Thelma Todd wearing an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1932 comedy Speak Easily. (Wikipedia)

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Rah, Rah, Sis Boom Bah

And so, in a city with one of the most storied teams in Major League Baseball, the New Yorker continued to ignore that sport as it gushed over college football, John Tunis even going the extra mile to check out homecoming at Ohio State.

HOMECOMING ROYALTY…THE Ohio State football team went 6-3 in 1931, but they blanked Navy 20-0 in their homecoming game. (

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Boxing Brainiac

Several times before in this blog we have encountered boxing great Gene Tunney and his taste for the literary life. E.B. White gave us the latest on the Champ in “The Talk of the Town”…

THE FINER THINGS…Heavyweight Boxing Champion Gene Tunney, left, discusses things that don’t involve hitting people with writer George Bernard Shaw during a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (AP)

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From Our Advertisers

It’s the Depression, Prohibition is still in force (kind of), so what’s a body to do to blow off some steam? Well, you could take up smoking, every waking moment, at least when it came to this guy…

…and these were the days when tobacco companies offered competing claims about the health benefits of their cigarettes (weight loss, calmer nerves etc.). So the folks at Listerine, who were all about keeping you safe from nasty mouth germs, launched a cigarette of their own, which was “taking the country by storm,” at least in their estimation…

…and I throw this in to give you an idea of how far cigarette companies would go, and how folks would respond in the early 1930s…at left is a 1932 advertisement from the back cover of Popular Mechanics, telling us that “Everybody” is deeply inhaling their product…of course people became addicted, including this young woman (right) featured in a 1931 Popular Science news item who managed to smoke and read a book while reducing her figure…

…back to the New Yorker ads from the Nov. 7 issue, here is one that offered a “scientific” way to remove nicotine from cigarettes, allowing only “pure tobacco” to enter your pink lungs…

…and now a couple of lovely color ads for Houbigant cosmetics…

…and our friends at Alcoa, diligently working to convince Americans that aluminum furniture was the modern way to keep your house “in step” with the times…

…and finally, RCA Victor was offering an early version of the LP record, so you wouldn’t have to stop necking to turn the damn record…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Gardner Rea

…John Reehill gave us a lover who probably watched too many romance movies…

…contrasting with this fellow illustrated by Carl Rose, who doesn’t lift a finger to find some romance…

…and while we are on the subject of love, here is a modern twist offered by Barbara Shermund

William Crawford Galbraith gave us a far more detached view of the game of love…

…while Helen Hokinson found an attraction of a different sort with one of her “girls”…

Alan Dunn looked in on the baking business, industrial-sized…

…and we end with Richard Decker, and the price of war…

Next Time: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

Times Square’s Freaks and Fleas

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Feb. 6, 1926 cover by Victor Bobritsky

Coney Island was famous for its side-show freak exhibits, but from 1925 to 1969 Hubert’s Dime Museum and Flea Circus in Times Square brought the show to the heart of Manhattan.

In addition to sword swallowers, tattooed ladies and other human oddities (the famous Zip the Pinhead did a short stint there), there was also Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, which operated in the basement. It indeed featured real fleas attached by very thin wires to miniature chariots, merry-go-rounds and the like.

The New Yorker mentioned Hubert’s in this brief “Talk of the Town” item:

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These days it seems a bit strange that women covered in tattoos were once considered sideshow oddities. Among the more famous was Stella Grassman, who worked as a “Tattooed Lady” in the late 1920’s in the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and also appeared at Hubert’s. Stella and her husband, Deafy (pictured below) owned a tattoo shop on the Bowery.

Stella Grassman and her husband, Deafy (Tattoo Archive)

And then there was Professor Heckler’s Flea Circus, depicted below (the “fleas” enlarged 700 times, and obviously embellished) in a feature on Prof. Heckler in the March 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics:

(Sideshow World)

The entrance to Hubert’s, photo undated, but probably from the early 1950’s:

Entrance to Hubert’s Museum (Ephemeral New York)

After Hubert’s closed it became just another porno peep show, a ubiquitous sight on Times Square until the city began a “clean up” of the area in the 1990s.

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Profiles examined the life and work of playwright Eugene O’Neil, and in the “Critique” section Gilbert W. Gabriel (who sometimes wrote under the pseudonym Golly-Wogg) gave a strong review of O’Neill’s The Great God Brown, writing that the play represented “some of the finest writing of his lifetime.”

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Peter Arno’s rendering of Eugene O’Neill for “Profile.”

I should note here that Gabriel had replaced Herman J. Mankiewicz as drama critic following HJM’s firing by editor Harold Ross in January of 1926. Ross, miffed by Mankiewicz’s interest in Hollywood, famously fired “Mank” by telegram (Mankiewicz would go on to a successful career as a screenwriter on such films as Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz).

Finally, an interesting take in “Talk of the Town” on book censorship of the day:

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Hard to believe that many of these books were considered lurid in their day, and were much sought after. Now you can buy practically anything, but then again, so few people read anymore these days.

“Talk” ended with this helpful advice on current cocktail recipes (remember we are in the midst of Prohibition). The “Titantic,” with six parts gin, seems deadly indeed:

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What is “Nuxated Iron” you ask? It was sold as a performing enhancing iron supplement in the early 20th century, endorsed by such athletes as boxer Jack Dempsey and baseball’s Ty Cobb. The blog Peterboriana explains it thus:

“Nuxated Iron” pills, as endorsed by Dempsey, were, obviously, iron supplements.  As for the “nuxated” part of it, that refers to nux vomica, a deadly substance better known as strychnine (i.e. rat poison).  Fortunately, the stuff being hawked…actually contained very little strychnine, and not much iron either.  It was comparatively useless as a performance-enhancing drug, but would not kill you unless you took a lot of it.

So if the Titanic’s six parts gin don’t get you first, maybe the Nuxated Iron will.

Next Time: Stop and Go

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