The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

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And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

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The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (

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When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

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They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

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An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

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Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…



Minding the Gap

Tens of thousands of commuters daily cross the George Washington Bridge, but in the din of modern commuting few give nary a thought to a span that was once considered a modern marvel.

May 3, 1930 cover by Rose Silver.

Twice as long as any previous suspension bridge when it opened in 1931, the George Washington Bridge’s main span of 3,500 feet (1,100 m) would be the world’s longest until it was surpassed by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in 1937. The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” (entry most likely by E.B. White) checked on the bridge’s progress for the May 3 issue:

MEN OF STEEL…Some 107,000 miles of wire were used in cables made by John A. Roebling’s Sons Company for the George Washington Bridge — the same firm also supplied wire for the Brooklyn Bridge 60 years earlier (John Roebling and his son, Washington, also designed and built the Brooklyn Bridge). Clockwise, from top, employees of John A. Roebling’s Sons pose atop cable bundles; bottom right, the bridge’s four main cables were each composed of a single strand carried back and forth across the river 61 times. Each strand itself is a bundle of 434 individual wires; bottom left, worker poses atop completed cable. (Flickr/Pinterest)
BY ANY OTHER NAME…Known as the Hudson River Bridge during its construction, the George Washington Bridge opened to traffic in 1931. During the first full year of operation in 1932 more than 5.5 million vehicles used the original six-lane roadway — today it is the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge, carrying more than 100 million vehicles per year. Although the steel towers are iconic today, the original plan called for them to be clad in stone. (Wikipedia)

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A Cabin in the Sky

Other signs of modern life were being seen in Midtown, where an “Aircraft Salon” hosted by the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce was taking place at Madison Square Garden.

Nicholas Trott was on hand to take in the exhibits, noting that advances in aviation included the use of metal bodies (instead of fortified cloth) and greater attention to interior decoration:

SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED…An attendee of the New York Aircraft Salon received a special postal stamp, and an autograph from aviator Cy Caldwell, at the Madison Square Garden show. (Joe Krantz)

Trott noted that designs of passenger compartments, still in their infancy, suggested something between automobile and nautical motifs:

SORRY, NO HEADPHONES…Clockwise, from top left, a Curtiss Condor 18 and its interior appointments; a Fokker Trimotor featured dining in its cabin. As peaceful as the scene appears, the noise from the motors must have been unbearable. (Wikipedia/

Trott also commented on the debate surrounding metal vs. fabric in the construction of airplanes. Before 1930 most planes were constructed of wood covered with fabric (which were much lighter than metal craft). Although as early as 1920 the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics declared metal to be superior to wood, only five percent of aircraft in 1930 were of all-metal construction.

DON’T CALL ME WOODY…This eight-passenger Consolidated Fleetster was a rare example of metal construction in early 1930. The wings, however, were still fashioned from wood. (Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce 1931 Aircraft Yearbook)

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Road to Nowhere

The New Yorker’s enthusiasm for modern marvels did not extend to the West Side Highway, a project that would extend from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. Here is E.B. White’s take on the opening of the highway’s first section:

White’s observations were somewhat prescient — constructed in tight confines, the road’s on-ramps proved too narrow and the turns too tight for use by large trucks. The roadway also lacked proper maintenance, and just two decades after it was completed a section of the highway collapsed under the weight of an asphalt-laden truck. The roadway was demolished between 1977 and 1989. Read more here about the West Side Highway’s surprising history at the Museum of the City of New York.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN, TAKEN…Left, West Side Express Highway and Piers 95-98, photographed by Berenice Abbott from 619 West 54th Street on Nov. 10, 1977; West Side Highway Ramp at 23rd Street reveals Art Deco ornamentation. Detail of photo by Jan Staller, 1978. (Museum of the City of New York)

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For Pet Lovers

Our latest installment of James Thurber’s “Our Pet Department” column…

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Hate Couture

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, using the pen name “Hippolyta,” contributed this profile of François Coty (1874-1934), a French perfumer and businessman. Flanner’s profile (the introduction included below) described Coty’s rags-to-riches rise in the perfume industry, and touched on his life as a sometime journalist and politician.

What doesn’t come across in the profile is Coty’s extreme right-wing stance on politics and his virulent anti-Semitism, which was often expressed in his newspaper, Figaro. Three years after Flanner’s profile Coty would co-found Solidarité Française, a fascist, paramilitary organization, and a year after that he would be dead of an aneurysm.

François Coty circa 1930. (

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From Our Advertisers

The New Yorker’s bottom line reaped benefits from the big aviation show at Madison Square Garden…

…and even if you weren’t selling airplanes or flying lessons, you could still get in on the action…

…also from the fashion world, this colorful entry from Onyx Hosiery…

…and this weird ad from Saks, advertising shoes and a party dress but dominated by a caricature of designer Joseph Hergesheimer

…on to our cartoons…Helen Hokinson paid a visit to the aviation show…

…on the domestic front, Garrett Price examined the challenges of home decor…

Al Frueh offered an ironic twist on a room with a view…

Peter Arno once again found humor in the partying life…

…as did Gardner Rea…

Next Time: All Quiet on the Western Front…