Markey’s Road Trip

With the explosion of car ownership in the 1920s and 30s came improved highways across America, but if one were to undertake a long-distance journey, like the New Yorker’s Morris Markey, you were bound to find a wide range of conditions, from concrete highways to muddy dirt roads.

July 25, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea.

Markey wrote about his experience of driving from New York City to Atlanta for his “Reporter at Large” column, noting that stops at filling stations also offered opportunities to fill up on bootleg gin. Drunk driving, it seems, wasn’t a big concern in the early 1930s.

BLUE HIGHWAYS…Although the U.S. launched into major roadbuilding projects in the 1920s and 30s, rutted and muddy roads were still common in many areas of the country. Clockwise, from top left, Route 1 winds through Maryland in the 1920s; marker indicating the Mason and Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland, circa 1930; a 1930s dirt road in the Eastern U.S.; a policeman directs traffic in Richmond, Va., in the 1930s. (Library of Congress/fhwa.dot.gov/theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com)
TIME TO GIN UP…James H. Brown (left), at the first of his four service stations in Richmond, Va., circa 1930. Some service stations offered Morris Markey bootleg gin during his journey to Atlanta. My use of this photo, however, does not imply that Mr. Brown offered the same service. (vintagerva.blogspot.com)

Unfortunately, Markey shared the sensibilities of many of his fellow Americans 89 years ago, and made this observation about drivers below the Mason and Dixon Line:

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Pale Riders

Since the mid-19th century Chelsea’s Tenth Avenue was known as “Death Avenue” due to the killing and maiming of hundreds who got in the way of freight trains that plowed through 10th and 11th Avenues in the service of warehouses and factories in the district. In the 1850s the freight line hired horsemen known as “West Side Cowboys” to warn wagons and pedestrians of oncoming trains, but even with this precaution nearly 450 people were killed by trains between 1852 and 1908, with almost 200 deaths occurring in the decade preceding 1908. Calls for an elevated railroad were finally answered with the opening of the High Line in 1934. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the last of these urban cowboys:

WESTSIDE COWBOYS…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue in the 1920s; a West Side Cowboy William Connolly rides ahead of a train to warn pedestrians in 1932; George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the High Line lifted most train traffic 30 feet above the street. Today it serves only pedestrians, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

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Guys and Dolls

“The Talk of the Town” had some fun with a little-known aspect of a notorious gangster’s life; namely, the doll-filled house belonging to Jack “Legs” Diamond:

DOLL HOUSE…This house on Route 23 near Cairo, New York, once sheltered gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, his wife, Alice, and her extensive collection of dolls and other knick-knacks. (nydailynews.com/Zillow)

“Talk” also made joking reference to the number of times Diamond had been shot and survived to tell about it.

Diamond’s luck would run out at the end of 1931 — Dec. 18, to be exact — when gunmen would break into his hotel room in Troy, NY, and put three bullets into his head.

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Ziggy’s Stardust

Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) had a knack for show business, launching the careers of many entertainers through his Ziegfeld Follies, which got its start in 1907 during vaudeville’s heyday. The advent of sound movies signaled the end of the vaudeville era and of Ziegfeld himself, who would stage one final Follies before his death in 1932. Gilbert Seldes penned a two-part profile of Ziegfeld under the title “Glorifier” (caricature by the great Abe Birnbaum). An excerpt:

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. It would prove to be his last Follies show. Revivals following his death in 1932 would prove to be much less successful. (Wall Street Journal)

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If Looks Could Kill

The New Yorker’s film critic John Mosher had a difficult time making sense of Murder by the Clock and its lead actress, Lilyan Tashman, who gave a tongue-in-cheek performance as the film’s femme fatale.

ARE YOU NUTS?…Irving Pichel and Lilyan Tashman in Murder by the Clock (1931). Tashman was known for her tongue-in-cheek portrayals of villainesses in films she made before her untimely death in 1934. (IMDB)

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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Open-air performances of classical music and opera were popular summertime diversions in the days before air-conditioning. In 1931 crowds gathered in Lewisohn Stadium to hear the New York Philharmonic perform under the direction of Willem van Hoogstraten, who conducted the Lewisohn summer concert series from 1922 to 1939. Here is a listing in the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section:

MUSIC IN THE AIR…Cover of the 1931 program for concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, College of the City of New York. Bottom right, signed photo of Willem van Hoogstraten from 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org/ebay.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Flo Ziegfeld’s 1931 Follies were lavish productions, but his advertising in the New Yorker was anything but as evidenced in this tiny ad that appeared at the bottom of page 52…

…no doubt anticipating the demise of Prohibition, the makers of Anheuser-Busch beverages ramped up the promotion of their non-alcoholic products to create associations with pre-Prohibition times…

…not to be outdone by the East Coast chocolates giant Schrafft’s, Whitman’s took out this full page ad to suggest how you might enjoy their product…

…which was in sharp contrast to the approach Schrafft’s took in this full-page ad featured in the April 25, 1931 New Yorker, which touted the health benefits of its candy…

…on to our cartoons, Richard Decker took us swimming with a middle-aged man who was anything but bored…

Barbara Shermund went en plein air with a couple of her ditzy debs…

Garrett Price also went to the country to find a bit of humor…

Helen Hokinson found a home away from home for a couple looking to take the sea air…

James Thurber continued to explore his brewing war between the sexes…

Harry Haenigsen gave us a novel approach to landing a trophy fish…

William Steig illustrated the wonders of the tailoring profession…

…and Alan Dunn aptly summed up the generation gap of the 1930s…

…on to the Aug. 1, 1931 issue…

August 1, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…”The Talk of the Town” mused about the advertising jingles made famous by the makers of Sapolio soap…

…Bret Harte actually did write jingles for the brand, once described by Time magazine as “probably the world’s best-advertised product” in its heyday. With a huge market share, Sapolio was so well known in the early 20th century that its owners decided they no longer needed to spend money on advertising. It was a poor decision, and by 1940 the product disappeared from the marketplace.

SEEING THE LIGHT OF DAY…A 19th century Sapolio sign on Broadway and Morris Street revealed after an adjoining building was demolished in 1930. (MCNY)
MONEY WELL SPENT…Sapolio ad from its heyday in the early 20th century. (Pinterest)

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Tough Love

As a charter member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, Heywood Broun was a friend to many of the founding writers and editors of the New Yorker. And so it must have been quite a task to review his play, Shoot the Works, which the New Yorker found wanting in a number of aspects. And because he was so close to Broun himself, Robert Benchley left the review writing to someone who signed the column “S. Finny.” I can’t find any record of an S. Finny at the New Yorker, and I don’t believe this is a Benchley pseudonym (he used “Guy Fawkes” in the New Yorker). At any rate, here is an excerpt:

SHOOT GETS SHOT…The New Yorker wasn’t crazy about Heywood Broun’s play, which ran for 87 performances at George M. Cohan’s Theatre. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of the “Flexo” ice cube tray continued to tout the wonders of their product with these Ripley-themed ads. This might appear rather mundane to modern eyes, but electric refrigerators with built-in freezers were still rather novel in 1931…

…another way to stay cool in the summer of 1931 was to take an excursion to the Northern climes…

…this ad for the New York American featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose early work strongly resembled that of Peter Arno’s

…on to our cartoons, we have the latest antics of the Little King courtesy Otto Soglow

William Steig added levity to a heavy moment…

Barbara Shermund found humor at an antiques shop…

...John Held Jr continued his revels into our “naughty” Victorian past…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and a look at the ways of the modern family…

Next Time: An American Classic…

 

 

 

 

The Black Eagle

Charles Lindbergh gained worldwide fame when he flew solo across the Atlantic in 1927, but the staid Lindy had nothing on Hubert Fauntleroy Julian when it came to personality (and politics, as we shall see). The Trinidad-born Black aviator not only pushed the limits of early 20th century aviation, but did it all with style and pizzazz.

July 18, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson. More on Helen’s 1931 travel covers in the cartoon section at the end of this blog entry.

Julian (1897-1983), known as “The Black Eagle,” left Trinidad in 1914 for Montreal, where he first learned to fly. He moved on to Harlem in 1921, where he polished his flying skills with aviator Clarence Chamberlin and practiced his parachute jumps. In the first of a two-part “Profile,” Morris Markey related Julian’s first encounter with Chamberlin:

DOING IT WITH STYLE…At left, Hugo Gellert portrait for the the New Yorker “Profile;” at right, the dapper Hubert Julian in 1937 (note the monocle hanging in front of his waistcoat). (harlemworldmagazine.com)

Julian did everything with brio; during one jump in New Jersey in 1923, he played “I’m Running Wild” on the saxophone while plummeting toward the earth. Keep in mind that the first planned free-fall jump from an airplane with a packed parachute occurred just four years earlier, in 1919. Heaven only knows how Julian made it to age 85.

BRING IT ON…Julian poses with his airplane, Ethiopia I, in the 1920s. At right, a 1935 syndicated feature on Julian’s exploits. In 1931 he became the first flyer of African descent to fly coast-to-coast in the United States. (NY Daily News/Pittsburgh Courier, Feb. 2, 1935)
THIS IS HOW WE DO IT…In the early days, parachute jumpers often climbed onto a wing to make their jump. Pictured here is Leslie Irvin, who on April 28, 1919, became the first aviator to make a descent with a “free type” manually operated parachute. (wondersofworldaviation.com)

During the 1930s Julian briefly headed the Ethiopian Air Corps, then returned to the States to tour as a member of an all-Black flying troupe, “The Five Blackbirds.” Incensed over comments Nazi leaders were making about Blacks and other races during World War II, Julian famously challenged Hermann Göring, commander of the Luftwaffe, to an aerial duel above the English Channel (Göring did not respond to the challenge). By contrast, Charles Lindbergh received a medal from Göring during a dinner at the American Embassy in Berlin in 1938, and praised the Nazi regime that would later go to war against his own country.

Julian was no choirboy, however, and after the war he became a licensed arms dealer, which eventually got him in trouble with the United Nations and earned him a four-month stint in jail. After his release, Julian retired, appearing on talk shows (including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and hobnobbing with celebrities such as boxer Muhammad Ali.

(Louisville Courier-Journal, March 21, 1964)

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I’ll Take a Dozen

“The Talk of the Town” followed its sweet tooth to a Broadway storefront where Adolph Levitt’s famed doughnut-making machine was cranking out 1,200 doughnuts an hour before hungry, wondering crowds.

MR DOUGHNUT…Clockwise, top left, doughnut machine inventor Adolph Levitt (front row, dark suit) with some chums at a train station; doughnut gawkers gather before the window at Levitt’s Mayflower Doughnuts, 1933 (photo by Martin Munkácsi); ad touting one of Levitt’s machines as a form of entertainment; and an illustration by Robert McCloskey from his beloved children’s book, Homer Price, of a doughnut machine gone berserk. (ice.org/econlife.com/Pinterest)

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Surfing the Jersey Cliffs

Along with doughnut machine-watching, another fun summertime diversion was New Jersey’s Palisades Amusement Park, which was purchased in 1909 by brothers Nicholas and Joseph Schenck and transformed into one of the most visited amusement parks in the country. “The Talk of the Town” recalled its origins:

COME HITHER suggests the sign for Palisades Amusement Park, offering dancing, vaudeville and surf-bathing among other diversions. Circa-1940 postcards featured the mechanically generated surfing pool and the famed “Cyclone” roller-coaster. (Pinterest)

And these were the guys responsible for all of that fun…

 Joseph (left) and Nicholas Schenck might not look like carefree sorts, but both had a knack for the entertainment world that would make them two of the most powerful executives in mid-century Hollywood. Among other things, Joseph played a key role in launching the career of Marilyn Monroe. He was, naturally, infatuated with her.

IS THAT YOUR GRANDDAUGHTER?…Joe Schenck and Marilyn Monroe are flanked by Walter Winchell and Louella Parsons at a birthday party for Winchell at Ciro’s Nightclub, May 13, 1953. (Pinterest)

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Claptrap

Robert Benchley couldn’t seem to let go of his recent experience at the revived Ziegfeld Follies. In his latest theatre column, he groused about the witless rubes in the audience who clapped over the sound of the performances, including Ruth Etting’s signature “Shine on Harvest Moon.” Take it away, Bob…

HOLD YOUR APPLAUSE…PLEASE…It was impossible to hear the trademark “cry” in Ruth Etting’s voice let alone anything else over the incessant applause at Ziegfeld Theatre.

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Coping With a Dry Climate

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White mused over the explosion of corkscrews, flasks and other drinking accessories that were patented during Prohibition:

WHERE THERE’S A WILL…Flapper displays her garter flask in this photo from 1926. At right, a Demley “Old Snifter” corkscrew and bottle opener. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

If you needed a stiff drink and an escape from the summer heat, well the heavenly shores of Bermuda might have been your (ahem) cup of tea…

…or you could have enjoyed the merriment aboard one of Cunard’s liners, which were headed both south to Bermuda and north to Nova Scotia (note Cunard’s continuing use of New Yorker cartoonists for their ads, Peter Arno, H.O. Hofman, and this week Barbara Shermund)…

…and we have another ad from Canadian Pacific announcing its around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain

…which brings us to our cartoonists, or specifically, Helen Hokinson, who featured one of her “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise of her own, chronicled on a total of 11 covers in 1931.

Today’s cover marks the mid-way point of the dowager’s journey, where she encounters a situation perhaps not described in her travel folder…

…and here are the 11 covers that take us from bon voyage in March to the customs office in November…

…and appropriately, we launch into the cartoons with one of Hokinson’s “girls” being a bit naughty, even smoking a cigarette…

…one artist we don’t see much of during the summer of 1931 was Peter Arno, and for good reason: he ended a tempestuous marriage to Lois Long (relocating to Reno to obtain the divorce) in June, then immediately got involved in a sex scandal with a socialite, all the while working on a Broadway musical. Taking up the slack were cartoonists like Barbara Shermund, who for a time could be seen as a “near doppelgänger” of Arno, according to Michael Maslin in his excellent book, Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist (also see chapter six for more on Arno’s crazy summer of ’31). I feature two from Shermund in this issue:

…moving along, Garrett Price makes me wonder if drunken driving laws were enforced in 1931…

William Steig gave us a couple of buddies discussing their literary tastes…

…and yet another cartoon with precocious kids, this time by Alice Harvey

…speaking of being alone, a day at the beach would not be an option according to Gardner Rea

…and we end with A.S. Foster, and a very modern-looking cartoon not only for its style but for the fact that it features anthropomorphic animal characters, rare in the early New Yorker

Next Time: Markey’s Road Trip…

 

 

Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

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Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

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On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

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The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

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Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

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From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

Frozen at 30 Rock

To call Lewis Mumford an architecture critic would do him a disservice. He was indeed an outspoken voice on New York’s changing skyline, informed by a keen understanding of history and aesthetics, but his criticisms were also those of a philosopher, a political commentator, a city planner, and an authority on matters concerning art, literature, society and culture.

June 20, 1931 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The June 20, 1931 issue marks the entrance of Mumford (1895-1990) to our New Yorker story, and just in time to offer his perspectives on the Rockefeller Center project, which was about to commence.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD…This Midtown neighborhood was torn down shortly after the photo was taken to make room for the massive Rockefeller Center project. The view is from the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street looking to the southeast. One of the spires of St. Patrick’s is visible at far left, and the Chrysler Building can be glimpsed in the distant center. Lewis Mumford was no fan of giant skyscrapers or other “mega” building projects, and would have preferred something more on this smaller scale for Rockefeller Center. (Museum of the City of New York – MCNY)

The proposed project — then referred to as “Radio City” — received negative reviews from a number of critics, although the most pointed came from Mumford, who disliked “mega” building projects such as Rockefeller’s, labeling it as “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos.”

RECKLESS, ROMANTIC CHAOS is how Lewis Mumford, left, described plans for Rockefeller Center. At right, the May 1931 issue of Popular Science featured the project’s plans. (Pinterest/Google Books)

Mumford’s Emersonian temperament favored simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; he believed skyscrapers and other “megamachines” were dehumanizing and even dishonest. In this next excerpt he poses a question about the so-called pragmatic “money men” behind the project: “Are the practical men practical?” We read on…

WELCOME TO CLOUDCUCKOOLAND…That was Mumford’s own term to describe plans for Rockefeller’s “Radio City.” An early rendering from 1928 (left) referred to the project as “Metropolitan Square,” and for a time it was slated to include a new Metropolitan Opera house.  Joseph Urban proposed this Fifth Avenue-facing design (right) in 1927, but plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. (ephemeralnewyork)
BLANK SLATE…With the site mostly cleared, construction commenced in the fall of 1931. This image is from December 16, 1931. (MCNY)

Mumford concluded that the opportunity to create a restful respite from the clamor of the city had been lost on the project, which just promised more “razzle-dazzle” and “incongruous jangle,” an interesting observation given that other New Yorker writers were generally dazzled by the skyscrapers and other gigantic projects that were rapidly erasing the old city.

True to his beliefs, Mumford lived a simple life in an old country house in Amenia, New York, a small town in the northern reaches of the Hudson Valley region.

FAR FROM THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE…Mumford house in Amenia, NY. (Wikipedia)

Historian Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center, notes that Mumford was eventually won over by Rockefeller Center in the end, calling it “a serene eyeful” and “the most exciting mass of buildings in the city.” I have to agree.

SERENE EYEFUL…Images of Rockefeller Center from 1939 (left) and 1935. (flickr.com/MCNY)

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Summertime Reads

A quick glance at the new books listed at the end of the New Yorker’s book review column shows us a nice variety of summertime diversions, including a book about Josef Stalin written before his Great Purge that murdered a million of his own citizens…then there was the memoir Blood on the Moon written by Jim Tully, “America’s most famous hobo author”…the book Life Among the Lowbrows by Eleanor Rowland Wembridge also caught my eye…I believe I’m almost set for the summer…

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS…Misfits and lowlifes peppered the books of both “hobo writer” Jim Tully (left) and psychologist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, although from very different perspectives. While Wembridge took a more clinical approach to the underclasses, Tully used them for material in his hardscrabble stories. Guess which one ended up in Hollywood. (scpr.org/apadivisions.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Jantzen swimwear took a slightly risqué approach in advertising their latest women’s line…

…the owners of the Majestic, on the other hand, used snob appeal and a sense of heightened grandeur to promote their Central Park West apartments…

…advertisers of non-alcoholic drinks tried their best to capture the allure of cocktails, and I imagine much of their product was mixed with something a bit more interesting…

William Steig was hitting his stride as one of the newer cartoon contributors to the New Yorker

…with two of his entries featured in the June 20 issue…Steig would live 95 years and be productive throughout his life…nearly 60 years after these cartoons appeared in the New Yorker he would publish the children’s book Shrek!, the basis for the popular movie series…

…earlier in his career, Steig would also find fame for his series of Small Fry cartoons featuring children in adult situations, anticipating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts…this next cartoon, however, is not by Steig but by Alan Dunn, perhaps anticipating Steig…

Gardner Rea continued to explore the foibles of the well-heeled…

John Held Jr amused us with another of his rustic “woodcuts”…

Garrett Price shot the rapids with a hapless suitor…

…here is one the six cartoons Crawford Young contributed to the New Yorker in 1931-32, capturing a moment in which the chicken-egg question is largely moot…

…and another look into the leisure classes courtesy Barbara Shermund

…and we close the June 20 issue with James Thurber, who showed us a fellow who probably regretted his evening out…

…Thurber also brings into the next issue, June 27…

June 27, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea

…in which he recounted his adventures in bird-watching and the mating habits of crows…

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A Falling (Lone) Star

In her “Letter From Paris,” Janet Flanner reported that the allure of the “Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan, did not extend to French shores, where among other things she ran afoul of labor laws that dissuaded non-citizens from working in France.

BEGINNING OF THE END…Associated with risqué entertainments in various speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression prompted Texas Guinan to take to the road with her show. After attempting (and failing) to make a tour of Europe, she returned to the States for one final road trip. Above left, Guinan in the 1933 film Broadway Through a Keyhole, which would open just three days before her death. At right, headline from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle trumpeting Guinan’s French debacle. (pre-code.com/

Upon her return to the States, Guinan took advantage of her well-publicized dismissal from France and launched the satirical revue Too Hot for Paris. This traveling show would also mark the beginning of the end for Guinan, who would contract amoebic dysentery during a run of the show at the Chicago World’s Fair. It would claim her life on Nov. 5, 1933, at age 49.

 *  *  *

They Put the Ping Into Pong

“They” being the Parker Brothers, who took umbrage at anyone who questioned their sole right to market genuine “Ping-Pong” balls. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

The “Talk” item ended with a little surprise about Mr. George Parker himself:

VINTAGE…A 1902 ping-pong set from Parker Brothers. (Worthpoint)

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From Our Advertisers

Some lovely color ads, including this message that paired playful porpoises with leaded gasoline…

…this ad was about color itself, and how Powers Reproduction Corporation could make your images pop…

…and another sad Prohibition-era ad from the makers of Budweiser, in this case, a non-alcoholic version that looks like the real thing…of course what is even sadder about this ad is the suggestion that plantation life was something one should fondly hearken back to…

…on to our cartoons, and another terrific illustration from Barbara Shermund

…and we have Otto Soglow’s Little King, who temporarily lost his crown…

…and another from Soglow, at the men’s store…

Carl Rose gave us a chap contemplating the burdens of a Guggenheim “genius” grant…

Peter Arno revealed that his Major had two left feet…

…and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, we end as we began, with Gardner Rea

Next Time: Firecracker Lane…

 

 

A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

 *  *  *

Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

 *  *  *

Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

 *  *  *

Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

 *  *  *

Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

 *  *  *

And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…

 

Flying the Friendly Skies

A few posts ago (the April 11 issue) I wrote about E.B. White’s love of flying, and how his (and the nation’s) exuberance for aviation suddenly came crashing down along with Knute Rockne’s plane in a Kansas wheat field.

May 23, 1931 cover by Garrett Price.

The death of the famed Notre Dame football coach had White pondering a new, safer path for aviation that seemed to be embodied in a contraption called the autogiro. White had previously written about the potential of the autogiro back in 1929 (Dec. 7 issue). Half-helicopter and half-airplane, it was considered not only safer, but easier to fly, possibly opening up the sky to everyday commuters.

PHOTO OP…A Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro paid a visit to the White House on April 22, 1931. President Herbert Hoover is second from left. (Library of Congress)

On a windy day White boarded the autogiro at an airport “in awful Queens” — most likely the current site of La Guardia — and filed this report for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

In the article, White referenced this Pitcairn Autogiro ad from the April 25, 1931 issue. No doubt the folks at Pitcairn had the Rockne accident in mind when they touted the safety of their craft, which seemed impossible to crash.

White wasn’t the only one enthused about the autogiro. It was the darling of modernist architects and futurists of 1920s and 30s, who saw the flying machine taking its place alongside the automobile in the house of the future.

SWEET…The Swiss-born architect and designer William Lescaze rendered this “House of the Future” in the late 1920s with a bullet-shaped motorcar in the carport and an autogiro perched on the roof. (From blog author’s collection)
COMMONPLACE, AT LEAST IN THE IMAGINATION…The autogiro appealed to the average Joe or Jill as well, featured in magazines such as the U.K.’s Practical Mechanics (June 1934) and Meccano Magazine (May 1931). At center, a Pitcairn ad from 1930. (vtol.org)
WELL, IT WORKED…This two-seat AC-35 Autogiro (left) was developed for a Department of Commerce competition to create an “Aerial Model T.” James G. Ray, vice president and chief pilot of the Autogiro Company of America, landed the AC-35 in a small downtown park in Washington. D.C. on Oct. 2, 1936; at right, a still image from a 1936 film, Things to Come, which showed people of the year 2036 getting around in autogiros while wearing groovy futuristic togas. (Smithsonian/gutenberg.net.au)

Prompted by a New York Times editorial, White pondered the day when the air would be thick with personal aircraft:

AND THEY LAND WHERE?…The idea of city skies filled with flying commuters is nothing new, as this 1911 illustration by Richard Rummell from King’s Views of New York attests. (The Guardian)

White offered still more observations on aviation safety in his “Notes and Comment” column…

…and in the same column he also pondered the future in terms of his infant son, Joel White:

Sadly, Joel didn’t quite make it to the turn of the century — he died in 1997. He did, however, have a successful life as a noted naval architect and founder of the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.

ON GOLDEN POND…Joel White took to the water at a very young age, seen at left rowing a boat in an image from a home movie by E.B. and Katharine White; at right, Joel in his design office at the Brooklin Boat Yard, which he founded in 1960. (E.B. White Collection, Northeast Historic Film/Billy Black)

One more from E.B. White, this the lead item for his column which made jest of a debate at Yale over dropping the requirement for Latin. It says something to the effect that “Yale’s lead on the issue frees the rest of us to follow our fiduciary duty, toss tradition into the fire, and focus on practical matters such as traffic studies.” Latin students, please forgive me, and if someone can offer a better interpretation, please let me know.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Dawn “Ring-Lit” cigarettes seemed to have a winner on their hands with a smoke you could light like a match, but I can’t find any record of the company. Most likely this was a local brand sold at nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, and not through retail…

…Murad, on the other hand, was widely available, but the brand faded as tastes moved away from Turkish-style cigarettes…Rea Irvin illustrated a long series of ads for the brand, presenting various “embarrassing moments,” including this familiar trope involving office hijinx…

…summer was on the way, and the makers of Jantzen swimwear were establishing their brand as both the choice for athletes as well as the fashion-conscious…

…and you might have packed a Jantzen or two for this around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain, arranged through Canadian Pacific. Your fare, if you wanted an “apartment with a bath,” would set you back $3,950, or a cool $63,000 in today’s currency…

…if the cruise was too rich for your budget, perhaps you could put your money toward a durable good like a GE all-steel refrigerator. Note how GE contrasted its product with the overly complicated gadgets demonstrated on stage by popular vaudeville comedian Joe Cook

…on to the cartoons, William Steig gave us a glimpse of the important work taking place behind an exec’s closed doors…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on a couple’s travel plans…

Wallace Morgan took us on a trot through Central Park…

Perry Barlow probed labor relations in an estate garden (and a caption with the New Yorker’s signature diaeresis on the word “coöperation”)

…and Carl Kindl gave a look into the latest maneuvers in the canned soup wars…

…and we end our May 23 cartoons on a sad note, with Ralph Barton’s final contribution to the New Yorker, a “Hero of the Week” illustration featuring the Prince of Wales:

On May 19, 1931, Ralph Waldo Emerson Barton, who suffered from severe manic-depression, shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown Manhattan penthouse. He was 39 years old.

From the outside one would have thought Barton had a wonderful life as a successful artist who lived in style, who spent long vacations relaxing in France, and who hobnobbed with celebrities such as his close friend Charlie Chaplin.

To lose a longtime contributor and friend must have been a real blow to the staff at the New Yorker. Barton had been there from the beginning, his name appearing on the magazine’s first masthead as an advisory editor:

He was a prominent contributor to the magazine, from recurring features like his weekly take on the news — “The Graphic Section” — to theatrical caricatures that included clever caption-length reviews. He was married four times in his short life, most notably to actress Carlotta Monterey, his third (he was also her third marriage). She divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929.

In his suicide note, Barton wrote that he had irrevocably lost the only woman he ever loved, referring to Carlotta. But some speculate this claim was a final dramatic flourish, and that the end came because he feared he was on the verge of total insanity. He also wrote in the note: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife and house to house, visited great countries of the world—but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”

A CHARMED, TROUBLED LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Ralph Barton with the love of his life, his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey; Barton with best friend Charlie Chaplin, photographed by Nickolas Muray in 1927; after leaving Barton, Monterey would marry playwright Eugene O’Neill, who in a weird coincidence would become Chaplin’s father-in-law in 1943; a 1922 portrait of Carlotta by Barton; and a self-portrait from 1925, in the style of El Greco. “The human soul would be a hideous object if it were possible to lay it bare,” Barton wrote in 1926. (illustrationart.com/Pinterest/MCNY/curiator.com/npg.si.edu)

The following issue of the New Yorker (May 30, 1931)…

May 30, 1931 cover by Barney Tobey.

…featured this brief obituary on the bottom of page 28. I like this observation from the last line…his work had the rare and discomforting tingle of genius.

 *  *  *

The Gray & The Blue

We are reminded of the span of time and history that separate us from 1931 with this small item in “The Talk of the Town” that notes “fewer than a hundred” Civil War veterans were still alive in New York City. We just marked the 76th anniversary of D-Day, an event still 13 years into the future for this New Yorker writer:

OLD WARRIORS…Union Civil War veterans stand in front a monument at Gettysburg, July 12, 1931. (National Geographic)

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From Our Advertisers

American brewers could sense the tide was turning on Prohibition laws, among them Augustus Busch, who took out a full page ad featuring “An Open Letter to the American People” that suggested a return to beer brewing would help relieve the unemployment situation caused by the Depression — note how the ad featured a variety of non-alcoholic products, but put the alcoholic beer at the head of the line…

…Walking east on 24th Street past Chelsea’s London Terrace and on to Madison Square Park is one of my favorite strolls in Manhattan…there is something almost cozy about walking by this massive building, once the largest apartment house in the world…Electrolux found it impressive enough to pair with their latest model refrigerator…

…a photo of London Terrace I took in December…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Otto Soglow’s Little King…

Richard Decker gave us another familiar comic trope, the postman and the housewife…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on some small talk…

Garrett Price explored the joys of parenthood…

…I’m surprised this got by Harold Ross, who could be a bit of a prude…we close with Peter Arno’s unique take on family life…

Next Time: Rooftop Romance…

The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley

Harold Ross founded the New Yorker as a sophisticated humor magazine, so when events in the city or the world took a serious turn, the writers and editors did their best to maintain its waggish tone.

May 16, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

After two cold-blooded killers engaged police in a heated gun battle from a West 91st Street rooming house, the May 16, 1931 “Talk of the Town” had this to say about the incident:

At right, a 1933 portrait of Portrait Of Edward Mulrooney, Police Commissioner of New York City, by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in finding entertainment value in the gun battle. Safety standards were quite different in the 1930s, so as police exchanged heavy gunfire with 18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, a crowd of 15,000 bystanders surrounded the scene, some just yards away from the action as the photo below attests:

THEY NEEDED SOCIAL DISTANCING HERE…On May 7, 1931, Francis “Two Gun” Crowley exchanged gunfire with police for nearly two hours from the fifth floor of a rooming house on West 91st Street. A force of 300 police fired an estimated 700 rounds at Crowley’s apartment while a crowd of 15,000 spectators surrounded the scene. Not sure why the police stood in a huddled mass beneath the window of the shooter. Strength in numbers, perhaps. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Another mention of the incident was in John Mosher’s film review column. He noted that the newsreel footage of the shoot-out was the best thing on the screen that week, and especially the moment when Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh emerged from the building in the clutches of the police:

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE…18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley (left) surrendered to police after suffering four gunshot wounds in the West 91st Street shootout, but would recover in time to be executed two months after his 19th birthday. At right, images from the newsreel show Crowley accomplice Fats Durringer being led away from the scene, along with Crowley’s girlfriend (bottom right), 16-year-old Helen Walsh. (Everett/YouTube)

By the end of the month Crowley was tried and convicted of the murder of a police officer, and his partner Fats Durringer was found guilty of brutally killing a dance hall hostess. Justice moved swiftly in those days, especially when the murder of a police officer was involved: On June 1, 1931 — just three weeks after the shoot-out with police — Crowley and Durringer were sentenced to death. Only six months would pass before Durringer took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley would follow his accomplice a few weeks later. As for Helen Walsh, she was released after testifying against Crowley and Durringer.

SHORT LIFE FOR SHORT KILLER…The diminutive Francis “Two Gun”Crowley, top, left, developed a habit of carrying more than one gun at all times, hence the nickname. At right, Crowley with officials at Sing Sing, where both he and partner Fats Durringer would meet their end in the electric chair. Below left, Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh. Crowley was barely 19 years old when he was executed on Jan. 21, 1932. Among his last words, he asked the warden for a rag to wipe off the electric chair before he took his seat. “I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it,” Crowley said, referring to Durringer, who had been executed weeks earlier, on Dec. 10, 1931. His request was denied. (www.swordandscale.com)

One final mention of the incident came from Ralph Barton, who named Police Commissioner Ed Mulrooney his “Hero of the Week”…

 *  *  *

Sub Sandwich

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey paid a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew were busy preparing a narrow, cramped submarine dubbed Nautilus for a trip beneath the ice of the North Pole. Markey marveled at all of the complicated devices crammed into the vessel, but at the same time wondered why anyone would stake their life on “such flimsy things”…

TIGHT QUARTERS…The Nautilus was a refurbished O-class submarine built in 1916 for the U.S. Navy. Somehow a crew of 20 crammed into the thing. (amphilsoc.org)
The Nautilus was fitted with ice drills that would allow access to the surface of North Pole ice, as well as provide air to the crew and the vessel’s diesel engines. All this equipment was untested and unproven, since at the time submarines were not able to snorkel and had never broken through ice to reach fresh air. Click to enlarge. (Modern Mechanix)

Markey wasn’t alone in thinking such an expedition was preposterous, and from the very beginning it was beset by problems. On the very first day of preparations, March 23, 1931, a crew member fell overboard and drowned. The next day, Lady Suzanne Bennett Wilkins (Sir Hubert’s wife) christened the submarine with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne, which was unavailable due to Prohibition.

More on this in another post, but suffice to say Sir Hubert did not succeed in this endeavor, and perhaps should have listened to the advice of the Icelandic American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson:

DRY DOCK…Christened with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne thanks to Prohibition, the Nautilus expedition, led by Sir Hubert Wilkins (inset), had to overcome many obstacles to reach the North Pole, including untested equipment such as a conning tower (right) designed to drill through ice to allow crew members to reach the surface of polar ice. (amphilsoc.org)

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Bright Star on Broadway

In spring 1931 Dorothy Parker subbed as theatre critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, and was greeted with a remarkably mediocre (or worse) line-up of shows. When Benchley returned to his post, things didn’t get much better until Rhapsody in Black came along with its inspiring star, Ethel Waters.

WELCOME RELIEF…Robert Benchley wrote that singer Ethel Waters had a “chastening effect” on even “the meanest of songs.” (Playbill/Carter Magazine)

 *  *  *

Six – Love

Eighty years ago sportswriter John Tunis declared that the Davis Cup international tennis competition would likely come to an end due to expense and the erosion of amateur play. Well, we know the Davis Cup is still around, and one wonders if Tunis was getting a whiff of sour grapes, since the French had won the cup five years straight, and would win again in 1932.

JEU, SET ET MATCH!…Dubbed Les Quatre Mousquetaires (“The Four Musketeers”), the French team of Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet (top), Jean Borotra (bottom left), and René Lacoste (bottom right) led France to six straight Davis Cup wins, 1927–1932. (Wikipedia)

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Old Gloria

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was only 32 years old in 1931, but she was so deeply associated with the silent era that by the 1930s she seemed positively ancient (a status that she would brilliantly use to her advantage in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard).   Mosher offered this “meh” review of her latest work — only her second completely-sound film — Indiscreet.

WHERE’S THE DOOR?…Ben Lyon seems perplexed by Gloria Swanson’s attentions in this theatre lobby card promoting Indiscreet. At right, Swanson delivers her trademark laser stare. (IMDB)

And we move on to our advertisers, with this ad from Publix Theatres (owned by Paramount) promoting Indiscreet

…Southern Pacific used a theme (illustrated by Don Harold) to promote travel on their trains that wouldn’t fly today…

…I include this ad for the design, which seemed to have a little of everything…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes, however, reverted to a somewhat more homespun image, abandoning the stylish, euro-set illustrations of Carl “Eric” Erickson

…on to our cartoonists, we have this caricature of Max Steuer by Al Frueh, rendered for a two-part profile…Steuer is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the factory owners after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, hmmmm…

Ralph Barton again, with his “Graphic Section”…

Garrett Price weighed the durability of modern decor…

Barbara Shermund looked at gardening challenges in the ‘burbs…

Perry Barlow gave us a glimpse of something perhaps inspired by a trip to Europe…

Richard Decker conjured a boat salesman with a loaded question…

…and we end with the great James Thurber, and a cartoon that might not pass muster today…

Next Time: Flying the Friendly Skies…

 

Front Page News

It’s hard to beat Chicago as a source for hardboiled storytelling, and two of its best newspaper reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, would draw on their rough and tumble newsroom experiences to create one of Broadway’s most-beloved plays.

March 28, 1931 cover by Ruth Cairns.

Although they were Chicago boys, the New Yorker crowd viewed Hecht and MacArthur as adopted (or perhaps naturalized) Manhattanites. So when John Mosher wrote his glowing review of the film adaption of The Front Page, he was writing about the work of a pair well known to the Algonquin Round Table set.

WE ❤ NY…Chicagoans Ben Hecht, left, and Charles MacArthur were familiar faces with the Algonquin Round Table crowd. (Chicago Tribune/Amazon)
NEWSIES…Editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) sizes up his reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Hildy’s fiance Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) in The Front Page. (IMDB)

MacArthur (1895-1956) was especially close to the Algonquin group, having shared an apartment with Robert Benchley and a bed with Dorothy Parker in the early 1920s. In 1928 MacArthur would marry one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, Helen Hayes.

For his part, Hecht (1893-1964) contributed short fiction pieces to the New Yorker during its lean first years, 1925-1928. After the success of The Front Page, Hecht would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters.

Here’s Mosher’s review:

Playwright and essayist James Harvey observes that The Front Page was “Hecht and MacArthur’s Chicago…(and) that counts most deeply in the imagination of Hollywood. And their play, the first of the great newspaper comedies, did more to define the tone and style, the look and the sound of Hollywood comedy than any other work of its time.”

DESK JOB…Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke) hide escaped murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone) in a rolltop desk in 1931’s The Front Page. (Everett)
TRIUMPHANT TRIUMVIRATE… Following up on the success of his famously over-budget war film Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes (left) had another hit on his hands as co-producer of The Front Page; at the Fourth Academy Awards the film was nominated for Best Picture, Lewis Milestone (center) for Best Director, and Adolphe Menjou (right) for Best Actor. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

A footnote: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were close throughout their careers, and remain so even in death: they are buried near each other on a hilltop in Oak Hills Cemetery, Nyack, NY.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

In the late 1920s and early 1930s several illustrators drew inspiration from the style Carl “Eric” Erickson made famous with his elegant series of ads for Camel cigarettes…I’m not sure if this ad (part of a series promoting “The New Chevrolet Six”) is by Erickson or an imitator, but it seems the artists were likely inspired by the actress Greta Garbo and her signature beret…

…and for comparison, an Erickson Camel ad from the March 21, 1931 issue…

…and our inspiration, Greta Garbo circa 1930…

…those Chevy buyers might have considered investing in Velmo mohair upholstery to boost the resale value of their auto…

…among other technological wonders of the age — furniture crafted from aluminum, soon to become ubiquitous in workplaces across the country…

…and then there was the electric refrigerator, still new to a lot of households in 1931 as icemen began to hang up their tongs and head for the sunset…

…if you were a modern man or woman of means, you could ditch the auto altogether and get yourself a Pitcairn autogiro…

…in the 1920s and 30s the autogiro was considered by many to be the transportation of the future, a flying machine as easy to operate as driving a car…

HEY DAD, CAN I HAVE THE KEYS TO THE AUTOGIRO?…Above, a Pitcairn PCA-2. In the 1920s and 30s, many future-forward designers imagined the autogiro as the flying car of tomorrow. (Wikipedia)

…for those who preferred to be passenger rather than pilot, they could relax in the comfort of an airplane cabin and enjoy some…hmmm…beef broth! From what I understand, passenger flight was not this cosy in 1931…this was long before pressurized cabins, when you had to mostly fly in the weather, and not above it, and you probably had to fight to keep from upchucking that Torex all over the lovely flight attendant…

…while we are on the subject of flight, we turn to our cartoons, beginning with Garrett Price

…meanwhile, William Steig explored the trials of young love…

…a rare two-pager from Ralph Barton

Leonard Dove adopted an alias for a cartoon that seems inspired by a recent trip to Persia…

Otto Soglow illustrated one man’s dilemma at a bus stop…

Gardner Rea found offense in an unlikely setting…

Barbara Shermund defined pathetic in this sugar daddy’s boast…

…while on the other end of the spectrum, I. Klein illustrated the burdens of life as a Milquetoast…

…and we sign off with Mary Petty, and one woman’s terms of endearment…

Next Time: Last Stand for Beau James…

Age of Wonders

Despite the deepening economic depression, work continued apace on a number of large building projects that were transforming the Manhattan skyline, including the Empire State Building, which was being readied for its May grand opening.

March 14, 1931 cover by Rea Irvin.

Developers also looked to the future, including the Rockefeller family, who commissioned a massive project in Midtown — 14 buildings on 22 acres — that would be one of the greatest building projects in the Depression era…

SAY ‘CHEESE’…A group of dour-looking developers unveil an early model for Rockefeller Center, March, 1931. (drivingfordeco.com)

…so great that even E.B. White found the proposed Rockefeller Center difficult to fathom:

DECO DREAM…Conceptual rendering of the Rockefeller Center complex by architectural illustrator John C. Wenrich. (beyondarchitecturalillustration.blogspot.com)

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Star Power

The Depression years also offered lesser diversions, and there’s nothing like celebrity culture to distract one’s mind from daily woes. For our amusement, E.B. White offered up the recent nuptials of Olympic swimmer (and future Tarzan movie star) Johnny Weissmuller and Ziegfeld singer/showgirl Bobbe Arnst…

MONKEY’S UNCLE…Newlyweds Johnny Weissmuller and Bobbe Arnst pose for photographers in 1931. The marriage would last two years. In 1932 Weissmuller would appear in his first “Tarzan” movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, and after divorcing Arnst would marry four more times. (Pinterest)

…of course there’s no better place to find celebrities than Hollywood, where Marlene Dietrich was collecting good reviews for her latest film, Dishonored. The New Yorker’s John Mosher was absolutely gah gah over the German actress…

COME HITHER IF YOU DARE…Marlene Dietrich portrayed Agent X-27 in Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 spy film Dishonored. (IMDB)

…if you preferred the stage to the screen, you could check out a show on Broadway, but if you were Dorothy Parker (subbing as theater critic for her pal Robert Benchley), you’d have trouble finding anything worth watching. Her latest review was something of a double-whammy: not only was the play a stinker, but it was written by one of Parker’s least-favorite authors, A. A. Milne

…AND MY MONEY BACK, TOO…

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Cinéma Vérité

However, Dorothy Parker could have found consolation in the fact that someone, somewhere, had it a lot worse. For example, the eight defendants in a Soviet show trial, filmed for the edification of the masses and as a warning to opponents of the Bolshevik Revolution. In this warm-up for the Great Terror to come, five of the eight were condemned to death after making what were obviously forced confessions. John Mosher had this to say about the real-life horror film:

PRELUDE TO MADNESS…Scenes from the Treason Trial of the Industrial Party of Moscow. Above, filming the proceedings; below, one of the accused scientists confessing his “crimes” against the state. (moderntimes.review/YouTube)

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End of the World, Part II

In my last post we saw how E. B. White mourned the end of the New York World newspaper in a lengthy “Notes and Comment” entry. By contrast, White’s colleague Morris Markey wasn’t shedding any tears for a newspaper he believed had seen its better days. Markey shared his observations in his March 14 “Reporter at Large” column…

AFRAID OF THE DENTIST? Murder suspect Arthur Warren Waite, a dentist from Grand Rapids, Michigan, appeared at Criminal Courts in New York City on May 22, 1916, to face double murder charges (he poisoned his in-laws). He was sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on May 24, 1917. According to Morris Markey, the World’s coverage of the story was the newspaper’s swan song.(Criminal Encyclopedia)

…Markey described the newspaper’s final day with veteran rewrite man Martin Green quietly typing his last story amid the tears and wisecracks of reporters suddenly out of work…

LONG GONE…Veteran rewrite man Martin Green (inset) filed his last story for the New York World on Feb. 27, 1931. Above, the New York World building was located on Manhattan’s “Newspaper Row” near City Hall. Commissioned by the newspaper’s owner, Joseph Pulitzer, the 20-story building was the world’s tallest office building when in was completed in 1890. It was demolished in 1955 to make way for an expanded car ramp entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. (New York Times/Library of Congress)

…the end of the World was also on the mind of Gardner Rea, who contributed this cartoon to the March 21 issue: 

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The State of Modern Man

Lois Long continued her “Doldrums” series by looking at the condition of bachelor life in the city, and like everything else among the younger generation she found it wanting. Lois was a ripe old 29 when she wrote this, but given how radically life had changed since the Roaring Twenties, a wide gulf now separated those days from the more somber Thirties. Note how Long, who embodied flapper life in her defunct “Tables for Two” column, described herself as a “modest, retiring type” who knew nothing about men. Around this time Long was preparing to divorce husband (and New Yorker cartoonist) Peter Arno after a brief, tempestuous marriage…

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From Our Advertisers

In those depressed days the makers of Buick automobiles decided to look to a brighter future, imaging how the boys of the present would be drivers of Buicks in the future…this kid probably ended up driving a tank or a Jeep rather than a Buick when 1942 rolled around…

Adele Morel also wanted you to think about the future, and how to hold off those inevitable wrinkles…note the message near the bottom: “Do you realize that a youthful appearance means happiness?”…

…I included this ad for River House because of its sumptuous detail…it rather resembles a 17th century European silk tapestry, and the people depicted look like they could be from that time as well…

…speaking of another age, we have this Murad ad by Rea Irvin, illustrating office behavior that was quite common in the 20th century…

…on a related note, in the cartoons E. McNerney illustrated a “Me Too” moment…

…when Otto Soglow published his first Little King strip in the June 7, 1930 issue, it caught the eye of Harold Ross (New Yorker founding editor), who asked Soglow to produce more. After building up an inventory over nearly 10 months, Ross finally published a second Little King strip, which you see below. The strip would become a hit, and would launch Soglow into cartoon stardom…

William Dwyer offered a dim view of a man’s stages of life in the first of two cartoons he contributed to the New Yorker

James Thurber shared tears with some sad sacks…

…in a few years Leonard Dove’s housewife would see her fears realized as another world war would loom on the horizon…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and an appreciation for fine art…

Next Time: Killer Queen…

 

 

 

 

The End of the World

In today’s world of endless media options, it is hard to fathom the influence newspapers had over daily life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was one news source that many New Yorkers simply could not live without: The New York World.

March 7, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

So when the World ceased publication after a 70-year run, many of its readers struggled to come to terms with the loss. Despite the World’s working class appeal and sensationalistic reporting, E.B. White nevertheless counted himself among its mourners, offering a lengthy eulogy in his “Notes and Comment” column…

THE COLOR OF MONEY…Under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer, who bought the World in 1883, the newspaper began an aggressive era of circulation building, and in 1896 enticed readers with pages printed by one of the world’s first four-color printing presses. The World was the first newspaper to launch a Sunday color supplement, which featured “The Yellow Kid” cartoon Hogan’s Alley (above, right). (5dguide.com)

A pioneer of yellow journalism, the World also featured sensational stories and headlines to capture the attention of readers…

…however, the World was also home to a number of prominent journalists, including the famed Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (aka Nellie Bly) and many writers from the social orbit of the Algonquin Round Table who were also early contributors to the fledgling New Yorker.

In his “Notes” essay, White suggests that he found something authentic in the World’s sensational style, and praised it for going after stories that more staid publications, like the New York Times, tended to ignore or downplay. The World’s staff of writers came from the rough and tumble, muckraking world of journalism, the same world in which the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, first cut his teeth.

ALL-STAR LINE-UP…Many of the World’s famed writers inhabited the orbit of the New Yorker and the Algonquin Round Table, including, from left, music critic Deems Taylor, journalist and social critic Heywood Broun, “The Conning Tower” columnist Franklin P. Adams, and humorist Frank Sullivan. (deemstaylor.com/britannica.com/Wikipedia)

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Swedish Sphinx?

Thirty years after her death, Greta Garbo remains an iconic figure in popular culture, due to her expressive eyes and sensuality, but perhaps even more so due to her elusive air. In her profile of the star for the New Yorker, titled “American Pro Tem,” Virgilia Peterson Ross refused to buy into the mysterious aura that was partly manufactured by Garbo’s handlers at MGM. The other part, however, was genuine Garbo, who detested parties, serious talk, and other formalities.

THE FACE…Like her contemporary Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo preferred an androgynous look. From left, Garbo wearing the flat-heeled oxfords she favored; publicity photo from 1932; wearing one of her trademark berets in the late 1930s. (garboforever.com)

Ross touched on Garbo’s love life — she never married in her 84 years, but she was close to her mentor, Finnish director Mauritz Stiller, who died in 1928, having been eclipsed by his protégé. Garbo’s co-star in the silents, John Gilbert — known as a great lover on the screen — wanted to marry Garbo, but she balked at his frequent proposals. The two lived together intermittently in 1926 and 1927, Gilbert helping Garbo not only with her acting also teaching her how to behave like a star and barter with studio bosses. Garbo later admitted that she was in love with Gilbert, but preferred to remain single because she “always wanted to be the boss.” Drink and despair would send Gilbert to an early grave in 1936. In her profile piece, Ross concluded that Garbo was “not a mystery to be solved,” but rather “a limpid child.”

THE MEN IN HER LIFE…Greta Garbo contemplates a new-fangled microphone with film director Clarence Brown on the set of Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie. Brown would direct Garbo in seven different films; Garbo with sometime lover John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). They would appear in four films together; Garbo with Finnish director and early mentor Mauritz Stiller, in 1926. (Wikipedia/IMDB/garboforever.com)

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Suffering Artist

Dorothy Parker continued to sub as theater critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. It was not a task to her liking — during her temporary stint she had yet to see a play that didn’t insult her taste or her intelligence. Her review for the March 7 issue would prove no different.

BROADWAY BLAHS…Dorothy Parker had yet to find a play to her liking in her stint as theater critic for the New Yorker. To her credit, she had to sit through a couple of stinkers: A Woman Denied lasted about a month — 37 performances — and Paging Danger closed its curtains for good after just four performances. (Playbill/BBC)

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The Misanthrope

To call Wyndham Lewis a character is an understatement. The English writer, social critic and painter (he founded the cubist-inspired Vorticist movement) managed to offend just about everybody before his death in 1957. He was described by the London Review as “fiercely unsentimental,” and that is how I would describe this opening paragraph from his short story “Dark Party”…

CLASSIC POSE…A 1929 portrait of Wyndham Lewis by photographer George Charles Beresford. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of ads appealing to women readers of the New Yorker, including this elegant bon voyage scene advertising travel clothes…

…and something you never see anymore, the “boneless” girdle…replaced today by Spanx and the like…

…Before we roll into our cartoons, some cinema-inspired art by Al Frueh

Alan Dunn went out to dinner…

Garrett Price went on safari…

E. McNerney channelled his inner Arno for this backstage scene…

…and the real Peter Arno gave us this passing scene which recalled his old Whoops Sisters gags…

Next Time: Age of Wonders…