Mussolini’s Romance Novel

About a decade before he joined the Nazis in spreading the madness of war across the European continent, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini penned a historical novel about a love affair between a Catholic cardinal and his beautiful mistress. Despite the premise, it was not exactly a Harlequin Romance.

Sept. 8, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey. Sept. 15, 1928 cover by Peter Arno. (click to enlarge)

Although many perceived Mussolini as nothing more than a thug, or even a clown when he styled himself as Il Duce, Mussolini thought himself an intellectual, and as a younger man sometimes worked as a journalist and essayist. That was also when he wrote his one and only novel, The Cardinal’s Mistress (1909), serialized in the socialist newspaper Il Popolo under the original title Claudia Particella, l’Amante del Cardinale: Grande Romanzo dei Tempi del Cardinale Emanuel Madruzzo. When it was translated into English in 1928, the distasteful task of reviewing the book (in the Sept. 15, 1928 issue) fell to Dorothy Parker. She began thusly:

In all fairness, Parker did ask for it. She went on to write “On the memorable day that The Cardinal’s Mistress arrived in the office of this lucky magazine, I was the girl who pled, ‘Please, teacher, may I have it to take home with me? Honest, I don’t want a cent of money for reviewing it. I’ll do it free of charge; I’ll even pay handsomely for the privilege.’ Well, of course, they wouldn’t hear a word of that – or at least I hope to heaven they didn’t – but I got the book. I had all sorts of happy plans about it. I was going to have a lot of fun. I was going to kid what you Americans call the tripe (les tripes) out of it. At last, I thought, had come my big chance to show up this guy Mussolini. A regular Roman holiday, that’s what it was going to be.” But it didn’t quite turn out that way:

Alfred Armstrong, writing for Oddbooks (oddbooks.co.uk) describes The Cardinal’s Mistress as a story about a historical figure, Emanuel Madruzzo, Cardinal of Trent, his mistress Claudia Particella, “and the unhappy course of their love affair.” Armstrong notes that the book was written rather carelessly, with a wandering plot that suggests Mussolini’s only interest in the characters was to place them in a historical setting that provided “an excuse for lengthy anti-clerical rants, and to portray the lust, vengefulness and murderousness of their adversaries.”

Although she could not make heads nor tails out of the book, it did stir Parker’s imagination enough to conjure up an insult for the “old Duce.”

WHERE IS THE LOVE?…Cover of the 1928 translation of The Cardinal’s Mistress, an anti-clerical rant thinly disguised as a love story. At right, Benito Mussolini in 1928. (Amazon/waralbum.ru)

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The Sound Stays in the Picture

Gilbert Seldes joined the chorus of voices at the New Yorker who decried the advent of sound in motion pictures, particularly when sound was used as a gimmick rather than as an enhancement to the production. So when Paramount’s Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor put their hands (and their sounds) on Ernst Lubitsch’s masterpiece The Patriot, Seldes decided he’d had enough of this “talkie” nonsense, taking on the producers in a special feature in the Sept. 15 issue titled “The Old Believers:”

New Yorker artist Hugo Gellert paid his own respects to The Patriot with this illustration in the theatre review section of the Sept. 15, 1928 issue.

Following his opening salvo, Seldes told readers why the film was important, how it revived his faith in movies and even in the possibility of intelligence and taste among the masses:

PERNICIOUS INTERFERENCE…Critic Gilbert Seldes took aim at Paramount execs Adolph Zukor, far left, and Jesse Lasky, center, for mucking up Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot with unnecessary sound effects. All photos circa 1922. (Wikipedia)

As for the taste and intelligence of producers, that was another matter. Seldes concluded his piece by laying into Zukor and Lasky for their “pernicious interference” with the masterpiece:

Seldes was so disheartened that he wondered if movies, as an imaginative and intelligent art form, would be dead in 10 years.

Seldes was wrong about the death of good movies, but ironically his beloved Patriot would not live on, and would disappear into the land of lost films. There are a few pieces in a UCLA archive, but no negative or set of complete reels are known to exist.

WHY YOU NAUGHTY OLD CZAR…Florence Vidor as Countess Ostermann and Emil Jannings as Czar Paul I in The Patriot. Nominated for five Oscars, the film would win in the “Best Writing” category at the 1930 Academy Awards.(mubi.com)

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Before He Was Kooky and Ooky

The child actor Jackie Coogan was the focus of a lengthy “Talk of the Town” piece that looked in on the life and habits of the young film star, best known for his role in Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 film classic The Kid.

Coogan was one of the first child stars in film history, earning an estimated $3 to $4 million (roughly more than $50 million in today’s dollars). “Talk” found the 13-year-old star in his dressing room, reading a theatrical newspaper:

The New Yorker couldn’t resist mentioning that the magazine itself proved to be an inspiration to the boy and his father:

As one of the first child stars Coogan also broke some tough ground for other child actors to follow. In early 1935 Jackie’s father, John Henry Coogan, Jr., was killed in a car accident. John Henry conservatively managed Jackie’s assets, but after his death John Henry’s widow, Lillian and her new husband Arthur Bernstein (who was the family lawyer), squandered most of Jackie’s fortune on fur coats, diamonds and expensive cars. Jackie Coogan sued them in 1938, but after legal expenses was only able to recover a mere $126,000 of his earnings. One good outcome was California’s enactment in 1939 of the first known legal protection for the earnings of child performers. The California Child Actor’s Bill, sometimes called the “Coogan Act,” required employers of child actors to set aside 15% of their earnings in a trust.

Jackie Coogan would go on to perform in mostly supporting roles and would marry four times, most famously to actress Betty Grable from 1937 to 1939. He gained renewed fame in the 1960s by portraying Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series.

VARIETY ACT…Clockwise, from left: Publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, featuring 6-year-old Jackie Coogan; Jackie on a 1928 visit to Berlin with his mother Lillian and father John Henry Coogan, Jr.; Jackie as Uncle Fester in TV’s The Addams Family, 1966. (Wikiwand/Wikimedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A mixed bag from the Sept. 15 issue, including this strip of ads near the back of the magazine that indicate not all New Yorker readers were as well-heeled as those who were targeted by the splashier, full-page ads in the magazine’s front section…

…and yet another endorsement for Old Gold cigarettes, this time from the Duchess of Sutherland, who joined fellow blue bloods in the blindfold test:

Nothing like profiting from the misery of others. In this ad, James McCreery & Company offered up rugs from “old Turkish families” who were “forced to sell their rare rugs and jewels in order to exist.” They weren’t cheap: the rug pictured was offered for $3,250, more than $45,000 in today’s buying power.

The “famous stage beauty” and early silent film star Billie Burke (who was married to Florenz Ziegfeld of “Follies” fame) shilled for Cutex nail polish…

…and 11 years later would portray Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the movie musical The Wizard of Oz.

Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch (cinemagumbo)

Now for the our comics, Peter Arno from the Sept. 8 issue…

And in the Sept 15 issue, W.P. Trent looks in on a homey café that moonlights as a speakeasy…

…and back to Peter Arno, who looks in on toffs slumming at Coney Island…

Next Time: This Thing Called Baseball…

 

Cuban Idyll

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Jan. 30, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes apparently wasn’t so put off by The New Yorker’s scathing review of his play, The Wisecrackers (Dec. 26, 1925) that he couldn’t continue writing for the magazine. In the Jan. 30, 1926 issue he offered an interesting essay on the particular appeal of Cuba. Titled “Annexation is the Best Policy,” it is an interesting read given the current reopening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S.

Given that Seldes penned his article about 30 years before the Cuban revolution, he offers some interesting insights into the independent character of the island nation and, perhaps inadvertently, also reveals American attitudes that helped to fuel the revolutionary fire. Seldes writes “the fact that Cuba has never been officially Americanized is supposed to be proof of our innate idealism; to me it seems more like a proof of the lack of imagination which ran through the whole McKinley period. To have taken the Philippines and passed up Cuba–how incredibly naive!” He goes on to observe that the total lack of “peaceful penetration” is proof that the island “will cling to its character no matter how many Americans do their worst.” Here is the entire article, interspersed with vintage images:

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Havana Club atop the Hotel Sevilla in 1920s Havana (Havana Club)

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1927 tourist brochure enticing visitors to Cuba (Havana Journal)
29 Dec 1931, Havana, Cuba --- 12/29/31-Havana, Cuba: Sloppy Joe, Jr., just four years of age and having two years behind the bar, is celebrating his graduation from apprenticeship by mixing his real champagne cocktail behind his father's world-famed bar. Sloppy Joe Jr., is quite proficient at mixing the more common varieties. Here, customers toast the little guy. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Sloppy Joe, Jr., just four years of age and having two years behind the bar, is celebrating his graduation in 1931 from apprenticeship by mixing a real champagne cocktail behind father José Garcia’s world-famed Havana bar, Sloppy Joe’s. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Also in the issue was profile of the life of silent film star Harold Lloyd. The writer R. E. Sherwood marveled at how a man from small town Nebraska became one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars and was even building a home in Beverly Hills for the staggering sum of $1 million.

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HANG ON HAROLD…Lloyd in Safety Last, 1923. (IFC)
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Illustration of Harold Lloyd by James House Jr. for the New Yorker profile.

In his “Of All Things” Column, Howard Brubaker made note of the following:

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Neither Brubaker, nor Hubble for that matter, could have ever imagined that in 64 years a telescope bearing Hubble’s name would be launched into space and resolve a number of long-standing problems in astronomy.

To close, a couple of advertisements from the front section of the magazine. Now we know what youth wear at smart tea dances…

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or what to wear to Miami Beach, or possibly Cuba…

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Next time: It’s anniversary month…

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The Last Laugh

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Dec. 26, 1925 cover by S.W. Reynolds

We close out The New Yorker’s first year with the magazine on firmer footing and many of its mainstay writers and artists firmly in place.

The Dec. 26, 1925 issue was the usual hodgepodge, but some writers did give a nod to the end of the year, including film critic Theodore Shane, who offered his list of the best ten moving pictures of 1925.

Shane’s favorite film by far was The Last Laugh, (the German title was Der letzte Mann, or The Last Man) a 1924 German film directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Emil Jannings (who would later win the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929). Shane referred to it as “the greatest picture ever made.” Released in the U.S. in 1925, the film was about a proud doorman who loses his job and tries to hide the fact from his friends and family. Shane usually reserved his highest praise for German cinema in his columns.

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Scene from The Last Laugh (1924) starring Emil Jannings.

Shane’s complete list of the ten best movies of 1925:

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For the worst films of the year, Shane suggested a tie between Drusilla With a Million, Lord Jim, Joanna, the Million Dollar Girl or Stella Dallas.

The New Yorker also commented on the murder of the irrepressible boxer Louis Mbarick Fall, popularly known as “Battling Siki.”

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“Battling Siki” in his heyday. (Wikipedia)

Born in Senegal, he was a light heavyweight boxer from 1912–1925, and briefly reigned as a light heavyweight champion. Known for his heavy drinking and carousing, on the night of Dec. 15, 1925, he was found dead near his 42nd Street apartment. He had been shot twice in the back at close range. He was 28.

In his column, “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey offered this observation on Battling Siki’s passing:

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The cartoonist I. Klein, on the other hand, contributed this strange stand-alone illustration for “The Talk of the Town” section:

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Also in “Talk” was this brief item about the United Fruit Company:

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United Fruit would be no laughing matter three years later with the Banana Massacre, which would claim the lives of an unknown number of workers who were striking for better working conditions in Columbia.

Art critic Murdock Pemberton offered a glowing review of an exhibit at the Montross Galleries by frequent New Yorker contributor Peggy Bacon:

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Peggy Bacon, The Whitney Studio Club, 1925. (Whitney Museum of American Art)
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Peggy Bacon (Smithsonian)

“Profiles” looked at Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, “The Fifth Avenue Maverick.” William Boardman Knox wrote that the young Vanderbilt “is as alien to his blood as a marmoset to a gorilla.”

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In the “The Theatre,” critic Herman J. Mankiewicz pulled no punches when he declared Gilbert Seldes’ play The Wise Crackers “the worst play of the season” (Seldes was himself a noted critic and sometime New Yorker contributor):

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What’s more, the play was about a group of literate New Yorkers who gather to exchange witty barbs and sarcastically comment on the doings of the day. In other words, it was inspired by the Algonquin Round Table, which famously included Mankiewicz as a member.

Another Round Table notable was Robert Benchley, who contributed this piece for the last issue of the year:

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Lois Long offered her regrets for ever bringing up the subject of “The Charleston:”

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And just a few pages over, lessons were advertised for…The Charleston!

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And to close, here’s a little fun with hotel inspectors, courtesy of Al Frueh:

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Next Time: Fun in the sun in the New Year, 1926

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