Out With the Old

Perhaps no decade was more transformative to New York City than the 1920s. From the loosening of social mores to countless technological advances, the city was a very different place as it entered the last year of the Roaring Twenties.

Jan. 5, 1929 cover by Sue Williams. Opening image depicts the original Waldorf Hotel’s Octagon Room in 1893.

Vestiges of the 19th century were quickly erased during the decade as old neighborhoods and stately mansions gave way to massive apartment blocks and towering skyscrapers. Such was the fate of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, its Victorian lavishness out of style in a streamlined age. Writing under the pen name T-Square, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell commented on the planned demolition of the old* Waldorf-Astoria Hotel:

*Although outdated in appearance, the hotel was little more than 30 years old in 1929.

TALE OF TWO HOTELS…The Waldorf-Astoria was actually two hotels joined together. The Waldorf, at left, was built in 1893. The much larger Astoria (right) was constructed in 1897. Note the arrow indicating the original Waldorf in relation to the Astoria. (Wikipedia/Detroit Photopraphy Archive)
PLACES TO SEE AND BE SEEN…At left, the “Gentleman’s Cafe” in the Waldorf Hotel. At right, lobby entrance to the marble-lined “Peacock Alley” that connected the two hotels. (Wikipedia/justcocktails.com)
DINE IN STYLE…The Palm Room in the Astoria section of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. (New York Public Library)

Chappell wrote that the prime building site was slated to be occupied by a 50-story office building…

…but as it turned out, Floyd Brown was unable to make the final payments on the property, so he sold his claim to the bank. John J. Raskob, a wealthy finance executive and chair of the National Democratic Committee, joined with entrepreneur Pierre du Pont and former New York Governor Al Smith (who lost his bid for the U.S. Presidency in 1928) to buy the property. They had much bigger plans than Floyd Brown: In August 1929 they announced their plan to build the tallest building in the world — what would become the Empire State Building.

TRY, TRY AGAIN…The architecture firm Shreve & Lamb developed this concept (left) for Floyd Brown’s proposed 50-story office building on the site of the old Waldorf-Astoria. At right, what occupies the site today: the Empire State Building, also designed by Shreve & Lamb. (Pinterest/oldstructures.com)

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Car Culture

The Jan. 5 issue featured a lengthy review of the 29th Annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace, as well as numerous advertisements by auto manufacturers hoping to entice New Yorker readers with their latest models.

Promoters of the event touted the addition of a grand staircase to Grand Central’s mezzanine level that would ease access to both levels of the show:

AIN’T IT GRAND?…Design drawing created for the 1929 National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace touting the addition of an equally grand new staircase. (Free Library of Philadelphia)
How the new staircase actually appeared at the 1929 show. Note the background where the movement of workmen on ladders lends a ghostly appearance. (Free Library of Philadelphia)
A view of the 1929 National Automobile Show from the mezzanine of the Grand Central Palace.

As I mentioned, the Jan. 5 issue was filled with car ads, mostly from long-gone automobile manufacturers. A constant in all of these ads is their appeal to New  York’s chic, smart set. Here’s a sampling of a few of them: (click ads to enlarge):

Hupmobile was a successful car company that began its decline in the late 1920s  precisely because it turned its back on buyers of medium-priced cars and went after what it perceived to be the more lucrative luxury buyer (see ad above). Hupmobile went out of business in 1939 (after briefly joining forces with Graham-Paige, which also went under that year).

Cartoonist Leonard Dove found humor derived from these very class distinctions when he visited the auto show:

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The Game, Served Up Cold

In other diversions from the Jan. 5 issue, Niven Busch Jr. attended the hockey game between the New York Rangers and the New York Americans at Madison Square Garden, noting famous faces in the crowd including Finnish track star Paavo Nurmi and American track star Joie Ray. Also noted were Tex Rickard, builder of Madison Square and founder of the Rangers, ex-football star and businessman Col. Harry Hammond, and film star Alice Brady.

AT THE GARDEN…Not even the exciting hockey play of Billy Boyd (left) and his fellow New York Americans could keep actress Alice Brady warm. (Pinterest/Alchetron)

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From our non-automobile advertisers, another installment of a Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) ad for Flit insecticide (this is the first instance — at least in the Flit ads— in which Geisel signs his art as “Dr. S” instead of “Seuss”).

And another cartoon from the Jan. 5 issue, courtesy Gardner Rea:

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Arno Addendum

In the rush of the recent holidays I missed an item from the Dec. 22, 1928 issue — namely, art critic Murdock Pemberton’s tongue cheek review (in “The Art Galleries” column) of cartoonist Peter Arno’s December 1928 exhibition of drawings at the Valentine Gallery:

Here are two Arno drawings that were featured in the Valentine exhibition (click to enlarge):

INTERNATIONAL APPEAL…less than four years after his Valentine Galleries debut, Peter Arno exhibited his drawings to great acclaim at the Leicester Galleries in London, October 1932. (Encyclopædia Britannica)

Next Time: Midnight Frolic…

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…