In the Cold Light of Day

When Rockefeller Center’s design was unveiled in 1931, New Yorker architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote that it followed ”the canons of Cloudcuckooland.”

Dec. 23, 1933 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Today we know 30 Rock as one of the most iconic and beloved places in Manhattan, but after Mumford saw the plans for this future “Radio City” he went into exile in upstate New York, upset over the “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos” of the project. Mumford wasn’t alone in his opinion; indeed it was his commentary that helped fuel negative reactions from citizens and newspapers alike.

No doubt the scale of the project bothered a lot of people, as it was slated to replace four- and five-story brownstones and other smaller buildings with a series of massive structures (for Mumford, it was rare that any skyscraper found his favor—to him they were oversized symbols of corporate tyranny).

IMMODEST PROPOSAL…In the fall of 1928 John D. Rockefeller leased this property from Columbia University for the future site of Rockefeller Center. The project covered nearly all of the area in the three square blocks bordered by Fifth Avenue, Sixth Avenue, and 48th and 51st Streets. (

As the Rockefeller Center towers rose, some softened their criticisms, including E.B. White—in the Dec. 9 issue he said he would eat his words after viewing the floodlit 30 Rock by night: “the whole thing swims up tremendously into the blue roxyspheres of the sky.”

Two weeks later, in his Dec. 23 “Sky Line” column, Mumford agreed that the floodlit buildings looked impressive, recalling Hugh Ferriss’ romantic, futuristic visions of the city; however, the darkness also concealed a decorative scheme that was ”bad with an almost juvenile badness.” 

NIGHT VISION…In his 1929 book, The Metropolis of Tomorrow, Hugh Ferriss published the image at left of an imaginary city of the future. At right, photo by Paul J. Woolf of the RCA tower at Rockefeller Center shortly after its completion. Ferriss was an architect, illustrator, and poet who explored the psychological condition of urban life, and was known for his conte crayon drawings of skyscrapers—nighttime scenes from a futuristic Babylon that are influential in popular culture (e.g. Tim Burton’s vision for Gotham in 1989’s Batman). (
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE…Lewis Mumford thought the RCA tower looked “scrawny” when viewed in broad daylight between the British and French empire buildings. (

Having finished his excoriation of the buildings’ scale and placement, Mumford proceeded to carve up the ornamental features, including the sunken plaza (today an iconic site for ice skating), which he thought looked “a little silly” in relation to the mass of the RCA building. 

TRAINED EYE…Lewis Mumford believed the work of the great Gaston Lachaise was diminished in the Rockefeller Center concept, noting that the Lachaise sculptures on Sixth Avenue (top and right photos) were only visible from the “L” station (Mumford doesn’t mention that the elevated placement of the sculptures was deliberate—they were put there so train riders on the “L” could see them); below, Mumford found the sunken plaza to be out of scale with the RCA tower—for decades it has been one of Manhattan’s most iconic sites. (Wikipedia/Vincent Tullo for The New York Times)

Revisiting Rockefeller Center in his May 4, 1940 “Sky Line” column, Mumford wouldn’t exactly eat his words, but he did admit that the collection of structures formed “a composition in which unity and coherence have to a considerable degree diminished the fault of overemphasis. In other words, they get by.” Mumford still believed 30 Rock was too tall—he would have preferred 32 stories, less than half its actual size: “Good architecture is designed for the human beings who use or view the buildings, not for publicity men or photographers.”

I have to disagree. Every time I look up at 30 Rock I feel my heart soar.

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Yule Like This

The Dec. 23 issue marked the return of Frank Sullivan’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings, Friends!” Sullivan published his first holiday poem in 1932 and faithfully continued the tradition until 1974; after his death in 1976, New Yorker editor William Shawn asked the late Roger Angell to take on the poem. In 2012 Angell passed the duty along to Ian Frazier, the magazine’s current Yuletide bard (Frazier’s latest poem can be found in the Dec. 26, 2022 issue).

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Success, In Spite of it All

“The Talk of the Town” looked in on singer Ethel Waters, who apparently wasn’t brooding over the difficulties of her past life, given that she was seeing so much success as a recording artist and as a Broadway star in As Thousands Cheer. Although her material life was better, she still faced racism wherever she went, including on stage—although she received equal billing, she was segregated from her co-stars in As Thousands Cheer.

BORN INTO THE BLUES…Raised in crushing poverty, Ethel Waters became a major singing star in the 1930s. She was one of the first singers to confront racism in a popular 1933 song, “Suppertime.” (Facebook)

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Geoffrey T. Hellman examined the life of American entrepreneur Armand Hammer in a profile titled “Innocents Abroad.” Hammer’s business interests around the world helped him cultivate a wide network of friends and associates. Called “Lenin’s chosen capitalist” by the press, Hammer (1898-1990) started a pencil factory in the Soviet Union in 1926 and later became head of Occidental Petroleum. Throughout his career he maintained close ties with Soviet leaders—which raised many suspicions in the West—but Hammer also served as a citizen diplomat for the U.S., an important go-between during the Cold War. An excerpt:

PROLETARIAN PENCILS…Clockwise, from top left: A 1928 Soviet advertising poster for “A. Hammer” pencils. The factory began work in Moscow in April 1926 as a private American industrial concession; Armand Hammer in the 1920s; Hammer (at right) shares a laugh with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. Hammer is also the great-grandfather of American actor Armie Hammer. ( York Times)

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From Our Advertisers

With Prohibition over, New Yorkers were looking forward to celebrating the holidays with Richard Himber and his orchestra at the Ritz-Carlton or enjoying a cocktail at the new Continental Grill and Bacchante Bar at the Hotel St. Moritz…

…and no less of an authority than Santa was advising shoppers to give tobacco products to their loved ones this holiday season…

…or perhaps you could be persuaded by elegant holiday wishes from the owners of Lucky Strike, who included their cigarettes among “the best of good things”…

…good living, apparently, could also be found in a bottle of Bud…

…or in American-distilled “London Dry Gin”…or in a pint of Guinness…

…our cartoons begin with Gardner Rea, and a course in mixology…

Otto Soglow’s Little King found a surprise in his Christmas stockings…

Helen Hokinson offered some passing holiday cheer… 

Mary Petty gave us this unusual Christmas seal…

…and from James Thurber, this earnest prayer…

…and we close with another prayer-themed cartoon from Jan. 4, 1982—Lee Lorenz, who died Dec. 8 at age 90, joined the New Yorker staff in 1958, the same year his first cartoon appeared in the magazine’s pages. He also served as art editor (1973–1993) and cartoon editor (1993–1997) for the New Yorker. Michael Maslin penned an appreciation on his Ink Spill site.

…Happy Holidays one and all, as we end with this GIF from Disney’s 1933 short, The Night Before Christmas

…and this scene from December 1933, when Rockefeller Center decided to make the Christmas Tree an annual tradition and held the very first tree lighting ceremony…

At left, image from December 1933—the very first tree lighting ceremony at 30 Rock, when the Christmas Tree became an annual tradition; at right, the tree on the Plaza in 1934, before ice skaters occupied the space. (

Next Time: Happy New Year, 1934…

As Thousands Cheer

ABOVE: Broadway's As Thousands Cheer (1933) featured evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Helen Broderick) trying to persuade Mahatma Gandhi (Clifton Webb) to end his hunger strike and join her act. (NYPL)

Broadway gave Depression audiences a lift with As Thousands Cheer, a revue featuring satirical sketches that skewered the lives and affairs of the rich and famous and served as a precursor to sketch shows like Saturday Night Live.

Oct. 7, 1933 cover by Peter Arno.

With a book by Moss Hart and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, the revue was a big hit, playing for nearly a year on Broadway in its initial run.

TOON TIME…Marilyn Miller led a chorus of cartoon characters in a sketch titled “The Funnies” in As Thousands Cheer; leading the revue were Miller, Clifton Webb and Helen Broderick, here featured on the cover of the Playbill. The production would be Marilyn Miller’s last—one of Broadway’s biggest stars known for playing sunny characters, her personal life was filled with illness and tragedy, and she would go to an early death in 1936. (

Wolcott Gibbs took his turn as Broadway reviewer, and pronounced As Thousands Cheer “the funniest thing in town.”

Not everything was roses in As Thousands Cheer: In a poignant star turn, Ethel Waters sang—at Irving Berlin’s request—his famous tune “Supper Time,” a Black woman’s lament for her lynched husband. The revue was the first Broadway show to give an African-American star (Waters) equal billing with whites, however she was segregated from her co-stars and did not appear in any sketches with them. Her co-stars even refused to bow with her at the curtain call until Irving Berlin intervened. According to the James Kaplan biography Irving Berlin, “The show had a successful tryout at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre in early September, although opening night was marred by an ugly incident all too in tune with the times: the stars Clifton Webb, Marilyn Miller, and Helen Broderick refused to take a bow with Ethel Waters. To his everlasting credit, Berlin told the three that of course he would respect their feelings—only in that case there needn’t be any bows at all.

“They took their bows with Waters at the next show.”

NEWSMAKERS…Each sketch in As Thousands Cheer was preceded with a newspaper headline. Clockwise, from top left, in the sketch headlined JOAN CRAWFORD TO DIVORCE DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS, JR, Marilyn Miller and Clifton Webb portrayed the stars arguing over publicity rights to their divorce; Webb as 94-year-old John D. Rockefeller; the headline FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT INAUGURATED TOMORROW featured Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover on their last day in the White House, portrayed by Leslie Adams and Helen Broderick; Ethel Waters singing Irving Berlin’s “Supper Time.” (New York Public Library)

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A Final Byline

E.B. White opened his column with a tribute to Ring Lardner, who died at age 48 of a heart attack and other complications. In the months before his death Lardner had contributed a number of comical “Over the Waves” radio reviews.

JOURNALIST AT HEART…Ring Lardner (1885-1933) worked for several newspapers before settling at the Chicago Tribune in 1913—it became the home newspaper for his syndicated column, In the Wake of the News. (Chicago Tribune)

Lardner’s first contribution to The New Yorker came shortly after the magazine’s founding. “The Constant Jay” was published in the April 18, 1925 issue: Readers appreciated his subtle wit, including this oft-quoted gem:

“The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet.”

Lardner also liked to poke fun at himself and his aw-shucks view of things. Here are the opening and closing paragraphs of his final New Yorker contribution, “Odd’s Bodkins:”

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Macy Modernism

As Lewis Mumford observed in his “Skyline” column, Macy’s was the first department store to embrace a modern approach to interior design, but as Marilyn Friedman notes in her book, Making America Modern: Interior Design in the 1930s, Macy’s modernism was a bit toned down to blend into more traditional settings. A case in point was Macy’s 1933 Forward House exhibition, which Mumford described as “a brilliant piece of modern showmanship.”

EASY ON THE EYES…”Living room in the Suburban House of Forward House” at R.H. Macy & Co., New York, 1933, from The Upholsterer and Interior Decorator, October 15, 1933. ​(

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Fishing for Commies

Geoffrey Hellman profiled New York House Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr (1888–1991), a staunch anti-communist perhaps best known for establishing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. I feature this brief excerpt mainly for the great caricature by Abe Birnbaum.

MINDING THE HOME FRONT…Hamilton Fish, Jr making a speech in Los Angeles, 1935. Fish served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1920 to 1945 and during that time was a prominent opponent of intervention into foreign affairs. (UCLA Special Collections)

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All Wet

Eleven years before Esther Williams made her first aqua-musical, Ruby Keeler took the dive under Busby Berkeley’s direction in Footlight Parade. E.B. White served as film critic for the Oct. 7 issue, and found Footlight to be a feast for the male gaze, as well as mindless entertainment.

TAKING THE PLUNGE…Clockwise, from top left: According to E.B. White, there was no gainsaying “the general aahhhhh” of the semi-nude waterfall scene in Footlight Parade; promotional poster left no doubt as to what audiences might expect from the film; Busby Berkeley displayed his craft in water-based choreography; Ruby Keeler portrayed a dancer turned secretary who is transformed back into a dancer—just add water. (IMDB)

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A Dog’s Life

Doubtless drained from writing The Waves, Virginia Woolf followed up with some historical fiction, namely Flush: A Biography, a book about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. Clifton Fadiman had this to say about the unusual biography:

VIRGINIA WOOF…Frontispiece for Flush: A Biography. Virginia Woolf used the tale of a dog to explore social themes ranging from feminism to class conflict. (Heritage Auctions)

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From Our Advertisers

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…with legal beer flooding the market brewers were particularly keen to attract female drinkers of all ages…and apparently social classes…

…a couple of ads from the back pages, the first touting the smart-set writing of columnist and foreign correspondent Alice Hughes for the New York American, and the second an advertisement for Chase & Sanborn coffee, which relayed the story of a marriage on the brink due to stale coffee…

…I include this ad for the heroic scale of the ocean liner, particularly as depicted by the people in the background…

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

James Thurber continued to explore the unrest among our domestic youth…

…speaking of America’s youth, this gathering (courtesy Gardner Rea) appeared to have trouble finding some…

Helen Hokinson found fun with flounder…

Rea Irvin turned the tables on a life-drawing class…

…and we close with Richard Decker, over the moon with a stranded chorine…

…and in a nod to the approaching holiday, imagery from a 1933 Fleischer Studios animated short film, Betty Boop’s Hallowe’en Party

Next Time: The Wild West…

She Wore the Pants

It’s hard to fathom that a woman wearing trousers used to cause such a stir, but for international film star Marlene Dietrich it was an opportunity for the publicity that invariably came with defying the norms of fashion and sexuality in 1930s.

July 22, 1933 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

In May 1933 Dietrich was headed to Paris on a steamer, relaxing on the deck in a white pantsuit. Prior to her arrival, the Paris chief of police announced she would be arrested if she showed up in pants. However when Dietrich arrived at the Gare Saint Lazare wearing a man’s suit and overcoat, she stepped off the train, grabbed the chief of police by his arm, and walked him off the platform.

The New Yorker’s Janet Flanner reported on Dietrich’s comings and goings in her regular column “Letter From Paris”…

TAKING PARIS BY STORM…Clockwise, from top left: Marlene Dietrich in Paris, 1933, accompanied by her husband, Rudolf Sieber; Dietrich on the SS Europa, Cherbourg, France, May 1933; Dietrich arriving at the Gare Saint Lazare station, May 20, 1933 (this photo is often paired with an erroneous caption claiming that Dietrich is being arrested by French authorities. On the contrary, she owned them the moment she stepped onto the platform); Dietrich signing autographs in Paris, 1933. (

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Bullish On Office Space

Despite the Depression, millions of square feet of office space were being added to the massive Rockefeller Center complex, including the Palazzo d’Italia at 626 Fifth Avenue. “The Talk of the Town” reported:

THE BIG SHORT…Attached to the International Building at its northwest corner, the Palazzo d’Italia was originally planned as a nine-story building, a fact that impressed the fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini because it beat the six-story height of the French and British Buildings. In the end Benito only got six as well. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)

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Urban Jungle

Astoria Studios in Queens was built in 1920 for Famous Players-Lasky and is still home to New York City’s only studio backlot. In 1933 it served as a tropical setting for The Emperor Jones, featuring Paul Robeson in the title role. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the movie’s faux jungle:

35TH STREET JUNGLE…Paul Robeson in a scene from The Emperor Jones. (

Loosely based on a Eugene O’Neill play and financed with private money, the film was made outside of the Hollywood studio system and distributed by United Artists.

EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES…Brutus Jones (Robeson) schemes with colonial trader Smithers (Dudley Digges) on his plan to become emperor in The Emperor Jones. (

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From Our Advertisers

Yes, it’s advertising so we don’t expect it to be realistic, but I can guarantee no one is going to look like that after a ride to the beach in a rumble seat…

…Hupmobile enlisted humorist Irvin S. Cobb to help boost its sagging sales…

Irvin S. Cobb (1876–1944) wrote for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and was once the highest paid staff reporter in the United States. (

…with the return of legal beer the makers of Budweiser struck a patriotic note in promoting their “King of Bottled Beer” to thirsty New Yorkers…

…the makers of Pabst Blue Ribbon claimed the title of “Best of the Better Beers” with this ad featuring a woman who appeared on the verge of going overboard…

…if beer wasn’t your thing, you could try your hand at mixing a “30-Second Highball” per this Prohibition-themed ad…

…delving into the back pages one finds all sorts of curiosities, including this mail-order “charm school” operated by Margery Wilson

…Wilson (1896–1986) acted in numerous silent pictures (including the 1916 D. W. Griffith epic Intolerance) and in the early 1920s was a writer, director and producer…

Margery Wilson in Eye of the Night (1916). She was among pioneering women filmmakers of the 1920s. (

…it must have been a hot summer in New York with the abundance of air-conditioner ads…here’s one from Frigidaire for a unit that despite its size (and enormous cost) could cool only one room…

…this next air-conditioner ad from G-E seems poorly conceived…you would think an air-conditioned office would make the boss and his secretary a bit happier than they appear here…maybe they just got the bill from General Electric…

…we begin our cartoons with another pair of sourpusses, courtesy Mary Petty

George Price offered up this bit of art for the opening pages…

William Steig headed to the country to escape summer in the city…

William Crawford Galbraith’s bathers kept cool by examining the flotsam from distant shores…

Charles Addams explored various themes before he launched his “Addams Family” in 1938…

…and we move on to July 29 with a terrific cover by Barbara Shermund

July 29, 1933 cover by Barbara Shermund.

…in this issue Geoffrey T. Hellman penned a profile of Egyptologist Herbert E. Winlock, who made key discoveries about the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and served as director of the Metropolitan Museum from 1932 to 1939, where he was employed his entire career. Excerpt:

CAN YOU DIG IT…Early 1920s photo of the Metropolitan Museum’s Theban expedition team. Herbert E. Winlock is in the back row, second from left. His wife, Helen Chandler Winlock, is in the front row, far right. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Chilling With U.S. Grant

In those days before air-conditioning was widely available or used, “The Talk of the Town” dispatched an investigator to sample indoor temperatures at various public places, finding the coolest spot at Grant’s Tomb:

WHERE THE COOL PEOPLE HANG OUT…Clockwise, from top left: The tomb of Per-neb at the Metropolitan Museum registered a cozy 80 degrees, while in the same museum it was a balmy 84 by Emanuel Leutze’s famed painting Washington Crossing the Delaware; the New York Aquarium in Battery Park was a bit cooler at 79 (pictured is the Sea Lion Pool); while Grant’s Tomb was downright chilly at 70. (Met Museum/Wildlife Conservation Society/

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Node of Gold
Apparently the famed crooner Bing Crosby had a minor node on one of his vocal cords, and when he consulted a specialist he was advised against removing it, lest he alter his voice in a way that would affect his career. Indeed, the node seemed to add an “appealing timbre” to his signature sound, so Crosby had his voice insured by Lloyd’s of London for $100,000 with a proviso that the node could not be removed. Howard Brubaker made this observation in “Of All Things”…

LUMP IN HIS THROAT…Bing Crosby with Marion Davies in the 1933 film Going Hollywood. (IMDB)

…Brubaker also shared this prescient observation from American astronomer Vesto Slipher

…Slipher (1875–1969) would live long enough to confirm his statement…the first full-disk “true color” picture of the Earth was captured by a U.S. Department of Defense satellite in September 1967:

(USAF/Johns Hopkins University)

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More From Our Advertisers

This ad was on the inside front cover of the July 29 issue, a rather jarring image following that lovely Barbara Shermund cover…

…the hugely popular P.G. Wodehouse was back with more silly antics from the British upper classes…

…while some New Yorkers could take a break from their reading and hit the dance floor atop the Waldorf-Astoria…

…and tango to the stylings of bandleader Xavier Cugat

Xavier Cugat and band atop the Waldorf-Astoria. (

…this ad for the French Line, illustrated by Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom, offered a precious scene of a page-boy lighting a woman’s cigarette, a sight unimaginable today for a number of reasons…

…and we close with a cartoon by Gardner Rea, doggone it…

Next Time: The Flying Season…