The So-So Soprano

Although its founding editor, Harold Ross, was raised in the rude surroundings of a Colorado mining town and often displayed the manners of a backwoodsman, the New Yorker nevertheless looked down its sophisticated nose at most anything west of the Hudson, and the middle west was reserved for particular ridicule in its homespun piety and small city boosterism.

April 20, 1929 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

Enter one Marion Talley, a child prodigy from the tiny town of Nevada, Missouri. After appearing in a lead role at age 15 for the Kansas City Grand Opera, excited civic leaders raised enough money to send Talley to New York to study voice. Four years later (February 1926) she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Gilda in Rigoletto — at that time the youngest prima donna to appear on the Met stage. A delegation of Kansas City’s two hundred leading citizens (including the mayor) travelled to New York via special train to attend the performance. Adding to the spectacle, a noisy telegraph machine was set up backstage so Talley’s father could send dispatches back home during the performance. Writing in his “A Reporter at Large” column for the New Yorker’s Feb. 27, 1926 issue, Morris Markey scoffed at the hype and Babbitry on display:

THE MANY PHASES OF MARION…Clockwise, from top left, 18-year-old Marion Talley in 1925 in a detail of an image that appeared on the cover of Time; Talley in 1927 (detail of a portrait by Edward Steichen); an autographed portrait dated May 1936; with co-star Michael Bartlett in her only movie, Follow Your Heart (1936); promoting Ry-Krisp crackers, sponsor of her NBC radio show, 1937. (Getty/famousfix.com/imdb.com/mnopedia.org)

The New Yorker (via E.B. White in “Notes & Comment”) caught up with Talley more than three years later in the April 20, 1929 issue, her short career seemingly over, her voice perhaps destined for nothing more than “hog-calling”…

When Talley’s Met contract was not renewed for the 1929 season, she announced her plans to retire to a wheat farm in Kansas (hence the hog calling reference). She did, however, try to revive her career on concert tours and then on her own NBC Radio program (1936-1938), sponsored by Ry-Krisp. She made one film, the 1936 musical Follow Your Heart, but after its tepid reception the 30-year-old Talley decided to retire from show business.

ONE MORE TRY…Testimonial ads promoting weight reduction usually signal the end of a career, and for Marion Talley her Ry-Krisp diet endorsement was no exception. (imdb)

How good a singer was Marion Talley? We will never really know, but you can get some sense of her style and range from this 1927 Vitaphone short (the Vitaphone sound method synchronized the film with what was essentially a record player):

Talley married twice — to pianist Michael Rauchelsen (1932–1934) and to music critic Adolph Eckstein (1935–1942), the latter with whom she had a daughter, Susan. Talley died in 1983 in Beverly Hills, California.

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Dark Clouds on the Horizon

The April 20, 1929 “Talk of the Town” made passing mention of a man who would be instrumental in the stock market crash later that year—National City Bank President Charles E. Mitchell:

The “Talk” item references a $25 million advance Mitchell offered to stock market traders who were getting the yips in an overheated market. This happened after a “mini crash” on March 25, 1929, when the Federal Reserve told its banks to withhold all loans to finance securities. Mitchell’s announcement apparently reassured the public enough to stop the panic, but in reality it only delayed the inevitable—a major market crash brought on in large part by the over-selling of securities by Mitchell’s bank.

RUNAWAY BULL…Charles E. Mitchell’s reckless overselling of securities played a large role in the October 1929 stock market crash. Arrested and indicted for tax evasion in 1933, Mitchell would be acquitted of criminal charges but would end up paying a million dollars to the U.S. government in a civil settlement. At right, Walker’s stately townhouse on Fifth Avenue, now home to the French consulate. (geni.com/daytonian in manhattan)

The “Talk” item continued with this observation on the Panic of 1907, and how banker J.P. Morgan had also offered $25 million to bring the market back to earth:

PANIC ATTACK…banker J.P. Morgan (left) used a pile of money to calm the stock market during the Panic of 1907. His son, J.P. Morgan Jr., (right) would try to do the same following the October 1929 crash, when he and other bankers attempted to prevent a depression by purchasing some overpriced blue chip stock. As we know, their actions had little effect. (Library of Congress)

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Funny Girl

One of Broadway’s biggest stars in the 1920s, Fanny Brice (1891-1951) was profiled by Niven Busch Jr. in the April 20 issue. In addition to her work with the Ziegfeld Follies and other stage productions, by 1929 the comedian, singer and actress had recorded two-dozen songs and appeared in the 1928 film, My Man. Brice’s star would continue to rise in the 1930s and 40s, especially on the radio portraying the bratty toddler “Baby Snooks.” Here are the opening lines of the profile, which included a caricature of Brice by Miguel Covarrubias:

Top right, caricature of Fanny Brice that accompanied the New Yorker profile, drawn by Miguel Covarrubias. Below, publicity photo of Brice as Baby Snooks, 1938. (Photofest)

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From its very beginnings comic verse played an important role in the pages of the New Yorker. The subjects of my previous blog post (Generation of Vipers), sisters Elinor Wylie and Nancy Hoyt, both contributed comic poems to the magazine, as did Clarence Knapp, a former mayor of Saratoga, New York, who also wrote prose pieces on that city’s famed horse racing scene. According to Judith Yaross Lee (Defining New Yorker Humor, p. 354), Knapp was a New Yorker insider who penned a total of 14 mock-melodramatic “sob ballads” between 1927 and 1930. Lee observes that Knapp’s ballads followed a fixed formula, two 16-line stanzas followed by eight-line refrains, that “joked about present social values by invoking past forms.”

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They Loved a Parade

After the passing of literary giant Victor Hugo in 1885 (his funeral attracted two million mourners), Paris became known for its spectacular funeral processions. So when famed French general and (WWI) Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch died on March 20, 1929, the City of Light turned out in droves to say goodbye. On hand to report the scene was the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, aka Genêt:

A PARIS FAREWELL…The Tricolor-draped coffin of Marshal Ferdinand Foch is escorted by the Allied Commanders from the Great War (WWI) during the funeral procession. The American General John J. Pershing can be seen marching alongside the catafalque in the center of the photo. (Associated Press)

By Flanner’s account, Foch’s send-off easily matched Hugo’s in terms of crowd size:

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The Art of Smoking

Cigarette manufacturers used a variety of marketing techniques to promote their tobacco products. During the late 1920s and early 30s R.J. Reynolds sought to attract more women smokers through a series of stylish ads for its Camel brand that evoked a softly elegant world. These ads were illustrated by Carl Erickson (1891–1958), a fashion artist whose work was widely seen in Vogue and in promotions for Coty cosmetics. This ad appeared in the April 20 issue of the New Yorker:

While studying at Chicago’s Academy of Fine Arts, Erickson was nicknamed “Eric,” a name he later used to sign his works. Also a successful portrait artist, Erickson lived part of his professional life in France (1920 to 1940) with his wife, the fashion illustrator Lee Creelman. Below are several examples of Erickson’s Camel work, including two back page illustrations from Delineator, a women’s fashion magazine that featured Butterick sewing patterns.

Clockwise from top, left, ad from Delineator, July 1930; 1929 ad from unknown source; unknown date and source; Carl “Eric” Erickson at work circa 1950; ad from the Delineator, July 1929. (Delineator/fashionising.com/periodpaper.com)

And From Our Other Advertisers…

With our Cuba relations once again eroding, let’s look back 89 years to a time when affordable, care-free living could be yours in sunny Havana…

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…or the modestly well-off could contemplate an apartment on Park Avenue…

View from a 16th floor condo at 784 Park Avenue, yours today for a cool $8 million. (triumphproperty.com/stribling.com)

Our cartoons come courtesy of Garrett Price (1895-1979), who would contribute hundreds of cartoons as well as 100 covers during his more than 50 years with the New Yorker. An excellent look at Price’s life and work can be found in The Comics Journal

Garrett Price, circa 1918, and one of his New Yorker covers from May 21, 1949. (The Comics Journal)

Denys Wortman (1887-1958) looked in on a bookseller with a “spoiler” problem. From 1924 to 1954 Wortman drew the nationally syndicated comic strip Metropolitan Movies for the New York World. The beautifully drawn strip offered a naturalistic portrayal of daily life in New York City…

Denys Wortman at work in an undated photo. At left, an example from his Metropolitan Movies comic strip, dated May 11, 1932. (New York World/New York Times)

…and John Reynolds looked in on the challenges of the architecture profession. Reynolds contributed 34 drawings to the New Yorker from 1928 to 1930.

Next Time: Hello Molly…

 

 

Happy 1929!

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.

Dec. 22, 1928 and Dec. 29, 1928 covers by Rea Irvin.

The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few. Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:

Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.

ON THE QUIETER SIDE…Abe Birnbaum (pictured here circa 1960) created more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to the 1970s. At right, a cover from March 17, 1962. (google.com.br)

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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…

…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…

Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):

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Hello Down There

Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:

This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”

Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:

STAR POWER…At left, American actress Maude Adams, circa 1900. At right, Adams as Peter Pan, her most famous stage role. Adams was the first American to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She played the role 1,500 times between 1905-1915. She retired from the stage in 1918 after a severe bout with the flu. She died at age 80 in 1953. (Wikipedia/Oakland Tribune)

Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.

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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929

The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:

JAM SESSION…1929 photo of traffic on Fifth Avenue. (theoldmotor.com)

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The Passing of a Poet

The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:

PORTRAITS…Elinor Wylie posed for her friend Carl Van Vechten in this 1922 portrait (left). The photo at right, probably taken around 1926, was clearly the inspiration for the illustration by Peter Arno that accompanied “Portrait.” (Yale University/humorinamerica.wordpress.com)

It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.

Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According to Karen Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.

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Age of Innocence

The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:

And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:

HOW SHE REALLY LOOKED…Katharine Cornell as ‘Countess Ellen Olenska’ in this Vandamm Studio portrait dated November 27, 1928. (Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library)

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Before Baby Snooks

Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:

MY MAN…Fanny Brice, Guinn Williams, and Edna Murphy on the set of the partially silent film My Man, 1928. Her first movie appearance, Brice played Fanny Brand, a poor girl who becomes a star. The film is now considered lost, since only an incomplete version survives. (brice.nl)
THROUGH THE YEARS…At left, singer and actress Fanny Brice from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, circa 1915. At right, Brice in the role of Baby Snooks, 1940. (Vintage Everyday/Wikipedia)

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Let’s Get Physical

Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:

Babe Ruth trains at Artie McGovern’s Gym in NYC for the upcoming baseball season, February 9, 1928. (twitter.com/BSmile)

And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill

Next Time: Out With the Old…