Nothing Like the Roxy

Jazz Age New York City was all about the big and grand, and nothing was bigger and grander than the new Roxy Theatre near Times Square.

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March 19, 1927 cover by W. Beothling.

The nearly 6,000-seat theatre was such big news that the March 19, 1927 edition of the New Yorker heralded its arrival in three separate columns.

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OPENING NIGHT at the Roxy Theatre. (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

The Roxy opened with the silent film The Love of Sunya, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The film, naturally, was panned by the magazine. Perhaps the critic’s distaste for the film also prompted a certain aloofness about the theatre itself:

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NOT EXACTLY YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…The Roxy Theatre lobby featuring the “world’s largest oval rug” manufactured by Mohawk Carpets. The theatre was torn down in 1960 and replaced by an office building. A TGI Friday’s restaurant is now located in the space that once housed this grand lobby. (screensonhigh.wordpress.com)
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NOT ANOTHER BAD NEW YORKER REVIEW?…Gloria Swanson consults a crystal ball to learn her future with three different men in The Love of Sunya. (gswanson.weebly.com)

“The Talk of the Town” described the Roxy in similar dispassionate terms, tossing a wet blanket not on the film but rather on the rude, gawking masses who shelled out 11 bucks apiece (equivalent to $150 today) for a seat on opening night:

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THEY WERE AWESTRUCK…The stage and orchestra pit of the Roxy Theatre (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (pen name “T-Square”) was a bit more generous in his column “The Sky Line.”

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DUBBED ‘THE CATHEDRAL OF THE MOTION PICTURE’ by creator and namesake Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, the Roxy was located at 153 West 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It was torn down in 1960. (nycago.com)
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COMING FULL CIRCLE…Gloria Swanson was photographed by Eliot Elisofon in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre on October 14, 1960. (Life Magazine)

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The magazine took an unusual approach to its “Profile” section by featuring an autobiographical profile of poet Elinor Wylie in verse, a portion of which is shown below with an illustration by Peter Arno:

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Morality-themed books got the attention of New Yorker book reviewer Ernest Boyd (pen name “Alceste), who devoted considerable ink to Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord by Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech (both of Algonquin Round Table fame). Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector and politician known for the “Comstock Law,” which sought to censor materials he considered indecent and obscene. That included birth control information, which led to famous clashes between Comstock and family planning advocate Margaret Sanger.

An advertisement for the book appeared in the back pages of the magazine:

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Boyd also reviewed Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, a controversial novel that exposed the hypocrisy of some 1920s evangelical preachers:

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This advertisement began to appear in the pages of the New Yorker for a new restaurant that claimed to replace the beloved Delmonico’s. Despite its status as a New York institution, Delmonico’s had fallen victim to the changing dining habits of Prohibition New York and had closed its doors in 1923:

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The restaurant was operated by the Happiness Candy Stores chain, which according to the ad also operated restaurants in two other locations in the city. The restaurants must have been short-lived, as I could find no record of them apart from the ads.

Next Time: The Garden City…

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Come Fly With Me

Since most of us complain about the sad state of air travel these days, it’s nice to get a little historical perspective on this mode of transportation.

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Sept. 4, 1926 cover by Rea Irvin.

Ninety years ago the editors of The New Yorker were enamored with passenger air service, even though it was only available to those who were wealthy and had the stomach to actually fly in one of these things:

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The May 8, 1925 christening of the Sikorsky “Yorktown.” The “huge” plane is referred to in the Sept. 4, 1926 “Talk of the Town.” (Library of Congress)

In the “Talk of the Town” section, The New Yorker editors marveled at the regular air taxi service available to Manhattanites:

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The “huge” Yorktown referred to above might look crude to a traveler in 2016, but this was advanced stuff considering the Wright Brothers had made their first flight less than 23 years earlier. Planes like the Yorktown looked less like aircraft we know today and more like a trolley car with wings attached. And that window in the front wasn’t for the pilot. He sat up top in the open air:

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Side view of the Sikorsky “Yorktown.” Note the pilot seated aft of the wings. (flickr)

But then again, the interiors of these planes were no picnic, either:

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Interior of a Farman Goliath, which would have been similar to the Sikorsky, if not a little nicer. (Historic Wings)
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Another photo of a 1920s passenger flight. As in the preceding photo, note the wicker chairs. And no leg room. These fellows appear to awaiting the showing of an early in-flight movie. At least movies were silent then, because with giant piston engines flanking the cabin you weren’t going hear anything anyway. (Paleofuture)

Other items from the Sept. 4, 1926 “Talk” section included a bit about the former president and then Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft, and his rather ordinary life in Murray Bay. An excerpt:

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Ex-President, Supreme Court Justice and avid golfer William Howard Taft follows through on the links in this undated photo (jmarkpowell.com)

At the movies, The New Yorker gave a lukewarm review of the much-ballyhooed film Beau Geste:

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AT LEAST SHE HAD A NICE COMPLEXION…Mary Brian (dubbed “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”) with Neil Hamilton in Beau Geste, 1926 (classiccinemaimages)

And although Gloria Swanson was one of the biggest stars in the Silent Era, The New Yorker was never a big fan of her films:

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Gloria Swanson in Fine Manners, 1926 (IMDB)

And finally, this advertisement from Houbigant, featuring a drawing of an elegant woman with an impossibly long neck. I wouldn’t want her sitting in front of me at the movies…

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Another ad (from the Sept. 11 issue) also depicted this giraffe-like neckline:

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 10.12.30 AMNext Time…Battleship Potemkin…

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Gloria Swanson, Close Up

Silent film star (and sometime French “noble”) Gloria Swanson was back in the States after a summer sojourn at her Paris residence.

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Nov. 14, 1925 cover by Joseph Fannel.

“The Talk of the Town” reported that she had arrived on the steamer Paris, with the great Polish pianist and statesman Jan Paderewski in tow…

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Johan Bull’s take on Swanson’s grand arrival with Paderewski, who was much decorated as both a statesman and artist:

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The New Yorker made light of the fact that Swanson assumed a rather regal bearing not only as a famous film star but also as the new wife of French aristocrat Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, her third husband. In his column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker added this swipe at the Swanson’s pretensions to royalty:

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Although a marquis and member of the famous Hennessy Cognac family, Henri was not wealthy and worked for a living. He met Swanson when he was hired to be her assistant and interpreter during the filming of Madame Sans-Gêne (1925) in France. The match of a Hollywood star with European nobility made the marriage a global sensation.

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MON CHÉRI…Photo taken around the time of the wedding of Marquis Henri de la Falaise and Gloria Swanson, January 1925 (indypendent-thinking.tumblr.com)

The marriage ended in divorce in 1930. According to Wikipedia, (citing two books on the subject), Swanson had an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. for several years during her marriage to Henri:

Henri became a film executive representing Pathé (USA) in France through Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who was running the studio. Many now assume he was given the position, which kept him in France for ten months a year, to simply keep him (Henri) out of the way…(Kennedy) became her business partner and their relationship was an open secret in Hollywood. He took over all of her personal and business affairs and was supposed to make her millions. Unfortunately, Kennedy left her after the disastrous “Queen Kelly” and her finances were in worse shape than when he came into her life.

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GOOD OLD DAYS…Life beneath the Sixth Avenue El (Wikipedia)

In another Talk item, the Sixth Avenue Elevated rail line continued to serve as a “blot” upon the city of New York:

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According to a Wikipedia, the old Sixth Avenue El (constructed during the 1870s) was notoriously noisy, made buildings shake, and bombarded pedestrians underneath with dropping ash, oil, and cinders. Eventually, a coalition of commercial establishments and building owners would stage a successful campaign to have the El removed because it was hurting business and property values. It would be razed in 1939 and replaced by the underground IND Sixth Avenue Line.

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SPOIL SPORTS…Buckner’s agents padlock New York’s El Fey Club in 1925 before a gathering crowd.

The New Yorker also featured a lengthy interview with Emory Buckner (conducted by Morris Markey), in which the New York District Attorney discussed his approach to Prohibition enforcement, including the padlocking of restaurants and clubs found to be serving alcohol. In a surprisingly frank interview, Buckner said his zealous crusade had nothing to do with moral conviction:

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Buckner also admitted that the government wasn’t making a serious effort to enforce Prohibition (e.g. low salaries for agents), and if it wasn’t going to make the effort then the law should be repealed. Markey concluded his article with words of surprising admiration for a man who had been so thoroughly excoriated in previous issues of The New Yorker.

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In other items, theatre critic Herman J. Mankiewicz stepped out of the “Critique” section to write about his experience travelling by train to a football game. He found the whole spectacle (especially the coonskin coat-clad fans) wanting.

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No doubt Mankiewicz’s fellow travellers were clad in something similar to this. The ad appeared in the same issue as Mankiewicz’s article.

Waldo Frank contributed a profile of the popular poet Carl Sandburg, whom he described as moving “through the Machine of our world” with “a peasant’s mind.” Frank used the term not necessarily as a criticism but as a way to describe Sandburg’s Midwestern simplicity. However, a drawing by James House Jr. that accompanied the article depicted Sandburg not as a man of letters, but more like some dim-witted forebear of Homer Simpson:

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The actor Leslie Howard contributed another humorous piece to The New Yorker titled “Such is Fame,” accompanied by this Julian de Miskey illustration:

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Theodore Shane reported in “Motion Pictures” that Rudolph Valentino appeared in person at the opening of his new film, The Eagle. Known for his aversion to public appearances, Valentino handled the occasion with a silent flourish:

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Vilma Bánky and Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle.

At the end of his column Shane included this exchange with novelist and playwright Edna Ferber, who was also one of the regular wits at the Algonquin Round Table:

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In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long wrote about the opening of the Nineteenth Hole Club at the Roosevelt Hotel, and noted that the putting greens on either side of the dance floor offered “additional uplift” to short skirts worn by some female patrons:

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She closed her column with this observation and a “warning” about “Lipstick” imposters:

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This was a familiar jest by Lois Long in her “Tables for Two” column–describing herself as short and squat–since most readers did not know her true identity or appearance, which was quite the opposite.

In Long’s other column, “On And Off The Avenue,” she offered this advice to women who were fashion-conscious but also thrifty:

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Next Time: Getting The Holiday Spirit…

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The Banqueting Wars

“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.

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April 25, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:

True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.

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Tom Mix and Victoria Forde (listal.com)
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Pola Negri

In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.

As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:

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Gloria Swanson (United Artists)

The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.

“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”

April 8, 1925 NYT
April 8, 1925, New York Times

Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”

When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on “Millionaires Row” (nyc-architecture.com)

Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).

The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.

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“Profile” illustration

“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”

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Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good (nickelinthemachine)

Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).

And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of  “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”

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Swanson and Émile Drain (as Napoleon) in Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.

Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.

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Al Schacht and Nick Altrock in 1925 (Library of Congress)