Prophet of Doom

The October 1929 stock market crash took most people by surprise, but one man, Roger Babson, knew all along it was coming…thanks to Sir Isaac Newton

Feb. 15, 1930 cover by Peter Arno.

Babson (1875-1967) is perhaps best known today as the man who predicted the market crash and the Great Depression that followed. He employed an economic assessment tool called the “Babsonchart” that was based on Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the Feb. 15, 1929 “Profile” (titled “Prophet of Doom”) Henry Pringle tried to make sense of this eccentric businessman, who would go on to wage war against gravity itself:

TOLD YOU SO…Illustration by Hugo Gellert for the profile on Roger Babson, who famously predicted the stock market crash; at right, Babson circa 1930. (Gravity Research Foundation)
BIG THINKER…Roger Babson dedicates the world’s largest spinning globe at Babson College in 1955; at right, the globe as it appears today. Founded by Babson in 1919, Babson College is often ranked as the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the U.S. (babson.edu/Wikipedia)

Pringle concluded his profile on a confused note, wondering if his subject — a product of sober New England stock — could possibly be a socialist in disguise…

In any case, it is difficult to assign Babson to any one category. Some considered him a genius and visionary, while others thought him a crackpot, particularly in the late 1940s when, following the death of a grandson by drowning, he began to wage war against gravity itself. In 1948 essay “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One,” he wrote: “Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles are directly due to the people’s inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.”

That same year Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation to expedite the discovery of a “gravity shield.” The foundation is still in operation, but rather than seeking to block gravity it works to better understand it. It continues to hold an annual essay prize contest — remarkably, five of its winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. The essay contest’s 1971 winner was none other than physicist Stephen Hawking.

ROCK STAR…Clockwise, from top left: Roger Babson at home with a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton; Babson was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1940; Babson provided charitable assistance to unemployed stonecutters in Gloucester, Mass., during the Great Depression, commissioning them to carve inspirational inscriptions on more than 20 boulders near the abandoned settlement of Dogtown. (centennial.babson.edu/Wikipedia)

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An Imperfect Romance

Born in the midst of the Jazz Age, it would seem that the New Yorker would have been a perfect fit for the most prominent chronicler of that era, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was mostly not to be: Fitzgerald would publish just two poems and three humorous shorts in the New Yorker between 1929 and 1937, including “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées” in Feb. 15 issue.

In all fairness, the New Yorker wasn’t exactly enamored of the young author. In its book review section for the May 23, 1925 issue, the magazine singled out three books for review, the first (and longest) review was devoted to James Boyd’s historical novel Drums. This was followed by a brief review of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the reviewer writing that the book revived his interest in the author but “not in a Byronic promise he probably never had,” and referred to the character of Jay Gatsby as “a good deal of a nut.”

The following year Fitzgerald was the subject of a New Yorker profile titled “That Sad Young Man.” In the magazine’s March 12, 2017 issue, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman note that the profile (by John Mosher) would be called “snarky” in today’s lingo. They also point out that “Fitzgerald, for his part, appeared to take a rather snobbish view of Harold Ross’s new publication, referring to the short stories he published in it as “hors d’oeuvres.”

With that, here is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “hors d’oeuvres” … “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées.”

SOUR GRAPES…The Champs-Elysées in 1929; F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter, Scottie, and wife Zelda in Paris in 1925. Despite being products of the Jazz Age, the author and the New Yorker were mostly at odds. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, Fitzgerald advised that she expand her knowledge of literature “instead of skimming Life + The New Yorker.”  (fr.wikibooks.org/AP)

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The Empire-less State

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White pondered the possibilities of a large lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street previously occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Although construction of the Empire State Building would soon commence at the site, White mused about other possibilities…

LIGHT THERE BE LIGHT…E.B. White found the newly excavated space at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (former site of the Waldorf-Astoria) to be a refreshing change. It would be short-lived, as the first beams of the Empire State Building would begin to rise from the site in March 1930. (NYPL Digital Gallery)

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Westminster People Show

Although it’s now customary to retire Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners, back in 1930 a wire terrier called Pendley Calling of Blarney won Best of Show in 1930 and won the title again the following year. Alice Frankforter was on hand for the event, but found the people at the show every bit as diverting as the animals. Some excerpts…

DOGGONE FUN…The 1932 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, NYC. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

REIGN OF TERRIER…Wire Fox Terrier Pendley Calling of Blarney, left, won back-to-back Westminster Kennel Club Best of Show titles in 1930-31. At right, King’s Best of Show win in February 2019 made him the 15th Wire Fox Terrier in Westminster history to earn the top prize. Terriers are by far the winningest breed at Westminster. (aka.org)

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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Robert Benchley struck a pre-emptive pose in his review of a new Broadway play titled Rebound — written by his good friend (and fellow Algonquin Round Table alumnus) Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) — and responded to “a chorus of yawps” that accused him of log-rolling…

A FRIEND INDEED…Robert Benchley (right) said his friendship with playwright and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (left) had no influence over his review of Stewart’s latest play, Rebound. It seems Benchley was in safe territory here, since Stewart’s output was generally high in quality. Indeed, in 1940 Stewart would win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the The Philadelphia Story.

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Georgia On His Mind

The opening of the Museum of Modern Art in late 1929 had a profound effect on the New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton. In the beginning he dismissed the museum as just another place for the old money crowd to throw parties, but with the opening of its third exhibition, “Painting in Paris” — which featured an extensive display of the works of French modernists — Pemberton began to come around to the idea that this new MoMA was a place to see groundbreaking works of art. In his Feb. 15 column Pemberton looked beyond France for signs of talented modernists in the States, and found only one who stood out — Georgia O’Keeffe.

MOD COUPLE…Clockwise, from left, Alfred Stieglitz attached this photograph to a letter for Georgia O’Keeffe, dated July 10, 1929; Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition of Paintings (1919-1934), at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery, 1935; O’Keeffe’s Trees at Glorieta, New Mexico, 1929. (Beinecke Library, Yale/Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)

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From Our Advertisers

Just as hemlines were dropping after the stock market crash, so were the brims of women’s hats — the flapper caps of the 1920s now sprouted droopy ears…

…this ad for Chase and Sanborn coffee featured a weirdly distended image of the writer and humorist Irvin Cobb

…Cobb as he actually appeared, circa 1930…

(talesofmytery.blogspot.com)

…G. Washington coffee, on the other hand, continued to draw from the New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists, including Garrett Price, for its illustrated ads…

…I was surprised to see this ad for two reasons: I wasn’t aware floss was in common use 90 years ago, or that it once came in the handle of a toothbrush…

…and then we have this sad little back page ad (just above a tiny ad for piano lessons) promoting Peggy Joyce’s ghostwritten “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. A former Ziegfeld girl and occasional actress who cultivated fame for fame’s sake, Joyce (1893-1957) was mostly known for her six marriages and extravagant lifestyle. By feeding the media a steady stream of scandals and other adventures (she often received reporters in her bedroom, dressed in a see-through negligee) she remained in the celebrity spotlight throughout the 1920s…

Peggy Joyce in 1923; cover of the first edition of her “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. Celebrated in the 1920’s as a swinging golddigger, her fame quickly evaporated into the mists of the Great Depression. (Wikipedia/Abe Books)

…speaking of celebrity, advertisers were so eager for endorsements of the famous that even “Mrs. Ring Lardner” (Ellis Abbott) got a piece of the action…

…as travel by airplane became more fashionable, automobile manufacturers increasingly paired their products with flying machines…

…for those who wished to stay on the ground, the Pickwick-Greyhound bus system featured “Nite Coaches” with 14 sleeping compartments (for 28 passengers), hot and cold water in each compartment, and hot meals served by stewards…

…on to our comics, I. Klein illustrated the excitement of heavyweight boxing…

Perry Barlow paid a visit to a writer and his dimwitted visitor…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a prep school dance…

Barbara Shermund demonstrated the finer points of beauty…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and one woman’s plan for a costume party…

Next Time: Five Years in the Making…

Georgia on My Mind

Although artist Georgia O’Keeffe has long been celebrated for her desert imagery and interpretations of natural forms, during the 1920s her heart was very much in New York City.

July 6, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt.

And New York City was where it all began for O’Keeffe (1887-1986). In January 1916, the famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) was shown a portfolio of charcoal drawings by O’Keeffe’s friend, Anita Pollitzer. Stieglitz was so impressed that he immediately made plans to exhibit the drawings—without O’Keeffe’s permission. The longtime art critic for the New Yorker, Robert Coates, told the story in the opening lines of his July 6 profile piece on the artist:

O’Keeffe moved from Texas to New York in 1918, and she and Stieglitz would marry in 1924, a marriage that would last until his death in 1946 (despite the fact he took a longtime lover, 22-year-old Dorothy Norman, in 1927).

TWO OF A KIND…Alfred Stieglitz, left, photographed by Paul Strand at Lake George, New York, in 1929. Exhausted and depressed, Stieglitz had retreated to the lake for the summer after learning that his exhibition space in the Anderson Galleries, which he called “The Room,” would be demolished along with the gallery building.  ∞  Center, a photo Stieglitz had attached to a July 10, 1929 letter to O’Keeffe, who had begun spending summers painting in New Mexico. Below the photograph he wrote, “I have destroyed 300 prints to-day. And much more literature. I haven’t the heart to destroy this…”    O’Keeffe in a 1929 photograph by Stieglitz, after her return from New Mexico. (aperture.org/Yale Beinecke Library/flashbak.com) click to enlarge

Following O’Keeffe’s first exhibition at the 291 gallery, Stieglitz established a firm hold over the display and sale of her work:

During the 1920s O’Keeffe found much inspiration on the streets of Manhattan, and particularly in the proximity of the Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. The Shelton, which opened in Midtown in 1924 as the tallest hotel in the world, provided a perfect vantage point for O’Keeffe to observe city life:

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER…Georgia O’Keeffe was captivated by her adopted city, particularly views from and around New York’s Shelton Hotel, where she lived from 1925 to 1936. Top row, from left: New York Street with Moon (1925)  ∞  New York Street No. 1 (1926)  ∞  Shelton Hotel New York No. 1 (1926)    The Shelton with Sunspots (1926)    East River From the Shelton (1926)  ||  Bottom row, from left: New York Night (1929)    Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927)    East River From the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel (1928)  ∞  Ritz Tower, Night (1928). (museothyssen.org/okeeffemuseum.org/curiator.com/virginia.edu/isak.typepad.com/ theartstack.com (2)/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/artnet.com) click to enlarge

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During the early decades of the 20th century Martin Couney (1870-1950) was renowned for his baby incubator exhibits at various world’s fairs and for his long-standing display of incubating babies at New York’s Coney Island, wedged between the usual sideshow attractions of freaks and burlesques. Couney charged visitors 25 cents to view the infants (in order that their parents would not have to pay for their medical care). “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Couney…

I’M NOT A DOCTOR. I JUST PLAY ONE IN REAL LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Incubator display building on Coney Island circa 1920s; Martin Couney with babies in undated photo; Couney’s early infant incubators in operation at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, 1898; the infant Beth Allen in a Coney Island incubator, 1941. (NPR/New York Public Library Digital Collections/Beth Allen)

Although many physicians at the time reviled Couney as a showman and a quack (he was most likely not a trained medical doctor), he nevertheless saved the lives of thousands of infants who would have died if left to the care of hospitals that were slow to catch on to this lifesaving device (they weren’t widely adopted until after Couney’s death in 1950). The “Talk” article credited Couney for saving “about six thousand lives.” Many of those babies went on to live long and healthy lives:

SEEING IS BELIEVING…Beth Allen (pictured, at left, in 2016, and as an infant in the photo montage above) was born three months premature in Brooklyn in 1941. Her mother initially rejected putting Beth in one of Couney’s Coney Island incubators, but her father persuaded Martin Couney to talk to his wife, who acquiesced. At right, Lucille Horn (pictured with daughter Barbara in 2015) was given little hope by doctors when she was born premature in 1920. The hospital staff told her father that they didn’t have a place for her, and that she had no chance of survival. Nevertheless, her father grabbed a blanket to wrap her in, hailed a taxicab and took her to Couney’s infant exhibit at Coney Island. Barely 2 pounds in 1920, she lived to age 96. (AP/NPR StoryCorps)

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The Electric Company

The 1920’s saw an explosion of labor-saving electric appliances, ranging from electric fans and irons to vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. The decade also saw a massive proliferation of electric lights, and the huge power plants that would be needed to keep everything running. “Talk” looked in on the Edison Company’s East River power plant to see how it all worked:

STILL HUMMING…Edison’s East River power plant (now ConEd), entered service in 1926 and is still in operation today (with a number of updates and additions over the years). At right, a 1920s view of the Broadway lights (newtownpentacle.com/Museum of the City of New York)

The opening of the Edison plant on the East River was a big deal in 1926. According to the ConEd website, “the six-story boilers installed at Fourteenth Street and East River were so large that a luncheon for nearly 100 people was served inside one of them before the renovated station went into operation… during the opening day ceremony in 1926, Queen Marie of Rumania flipped the switch to start the 100,000 horsepower turbine generator.”

“Talk” also offered some interesting insights into the plant’s complex operations, including an unusual storm warning system:

YOU GET THE IDEA…A Philadelphia Electric Company control room in the 1920s. New York’s was undoubtedly much larger. (IEEE Computer Society)

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From Our Advertisers

Fleischmann Yeast was a regular advertiser in the New Yorker for a good reason: Raoul Fleischmann (of the New York yeast and baking giant) hated the baking business but loved hanging out with the Algonquin Round Table crowd, which included New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. When the fledging magazine nearly went belly up in 1925, Fleischmann kicked in the money (and on a number of occasions thereafter) to keep it going. Hence the “free” advertising he received for his product, touted not as a baking aid, but rather as a cure for constipation and other intestinal turmoils. In this ad, a physician who “treated German Royalty” endorsed the generous consumption of yeast cakes…

…a  footnote on the Fleischmann ad: Dr. Kurt Henius (1882-1947) was a doctor of medicine and a professor on the Friedrich-Wilhelms (now Humboldt) University medicine faculty at the Charité hospital in Berlin, Germany. Because he was Jewish, he was dismissed from the university in 1935, and in 1939 he fled from the Nazis to safety in Luxembourg, where he died in 1947.

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During prohibition we see plenty of ads in the New Yorker for ginger ale and sparkling water, but this one for Pabst Blue Ribbon beer caught my eye. This is, of course, “near-beer,” with an alcohol content of 0.5%…

According to Forbes magazine, the few breweries that managed to survive during Prohibition made everything from ceramics and ice cream to the barely alcoholic near beer. Pabst also turned to making cheese, which was aged in the brewery’s ice cellars. The brand, “Pabst-ett,” was sold to Kraft in 1933 at the end of Prohibition…

(Courtesy Pabst Blue Ribbon)

…and this colorful ad comes courtesy of Texaco. Did you ever see two young people more enamored with petroleum products?…

…before we get to the comics, here is a two-page illustration in the July 6 issue by Constantin Alajalov (click to enlarge)…

…this peek into the world of trolley car conductors appears to be by Reginald Marsh

…and finally, Peter Arno revealed the thankless work of one stuntman…

Next Time: Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany…

 

Technicolor World

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March 13, 1926 cover by H.O. Hoffman.

Although the trade name “Technicolor” conjures up images of mid-century Hollywood, the process was actually invented in 1916 and developed over  subsequent decades.

Early Technicolor was a complicated process, using a prism beam-splitter behind the camera lens to simultaneously expose two consecutive frames of a single strip of black-and-white negative–one behind a red filter, the other behind a green filter. A projectionist had to be highly skilled to keep the film aligned during its showing. The Black Pirate, however, used a later technique that cemented the two prints together, making for a thick film that was prone to bulging and distortion.

When the New Yorker’s Theodore Shane reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’s latest swashbuckler film, The Black Pirate, in the March 13, 1926 issue, it appeared that after ten years of development the Technicolor process had a long way to go:

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DEAR, YOU LOOK A BIT PEAKY…Billy Dove and Douglas Fairbanks rendered in early Technicolor in The Black Pirate. (MovieMail.com)

Art critic Murdock Pemberton wrote about the genius of the young artist Georgia O’Keeffe, whose work was on display at husband Alfred Stieglitz’s new exhibition space, the Intimate Gallery:

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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, 1926. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

On to the March 20 issue, boldly illustrated by S.W. Reynolds, who contributed a number of deco-themed covers for the magazine:

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For all The New Yorker’s progressive wit and style, you are occasionally reminded that some of its sensibilities were still very much mired in those times. For example, this bit from the issue’s “The Talk of the Town” segment:

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The March 27 issue offered a profile of actress Helen Westley, who was described by writer Waldo Frank (pen name “Search-light”) as “a goddess of our city” whose  “true value and her art (was) her personal life.”

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March 27 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Wesley often played a stern, indomitable character who wore a hawk-like glare, and in her later years portrayed dour dowagers and no-nonsense matrons. Frank wrote that while Wesley was not a particularly good actress, she lived her life with a spirit for adventure and a need to plunge her fine-born, gracious manner into the “frowsy” world of Broadway.

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A Miguel Covarrubias rendering of Helen Wesley for Waldo Frank’s “Profiles” piece.

And a photograph of Helen Wesley, early 1940s.

Helen Wesley wearing hat, 1940s. (Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images)
Helen Wesley (Film Favorites/Getty)

And to close, Al Frueh’s take on a day in the life of a doorman:

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Next Time: Parisians and Puritans…

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