An American Classic

Immigration over the centuries transformed New York City into a cosmopolitan metropolis, with many of those migrants drawn from America’s hinterlands. What they found in the city was not only economic opportunity, but also a place to grow artistically and intellectually.

Aug. 8, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Such was the case of Willa Cather, who while living in New York City would draw on her Nebraska childhood to write a succession of novels about prairie life and its people (including My Antonia and O Pioneers!) that would culminate in a 1923 Pulitzer Prize.

Louise Bogan, in 1931 a new poetry editor for the New Yorker (and a poet herself), wrote a profile of Cather for the Aug. 8 issue. An excerpt:

TWO FACES…Hugo Gellert rendering of Willa Cather for the profile; undated photo at right gives you some idea of the look Cather aimed at the affected behavior of others. (New York Times)
FORMATIVE YEARS…Clockwise, from top left, Willa Cather as a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s; classmates at Nebraska included author and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Alvin Johnson, later a co-founder of New York’s New School. Both Cather and Fisher took fencing lessons from John J. Pershing, who taught military science at Nebraska; Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Neb., and the prairie that inspired much of her writing. (news.unl.edu/Wikipedia/new school.edu/literaryamerica.net)
CITY LIFE…Clockwise, from top: S. S. McClure, Willa Cather, Ida Tarbell, and Will Irvin visit in Washington Square Park, 1924; Cather in the meadow of High Mowing farm near Jaffrey, N.H., where she wrote part of My Antonia; on the cover of Time, Aug. 3, 1931; one of Cather’s New York residences at 82 Washington Place. (Indiana University/Southwick Collection, University of Nebraska/time.com/jschumacher.typepad.com)

Bogan concluded the profile with this note about Lèon Bakst, who was commissioned in 1923 to paint a portrait of Cather while she visiting Paris (image courtesy Omaha Public Library):

My dear late friend Susan Rosowski, who was a preeminent Cather scholar, wrote that Cather was “the first to give immigrants heroic stature in serious American literature.” In these times when immigration is so hotly debated, it is worth revisiting My Antonia and O Pioneers! to recall what once made America truly great.

 *  *  *

One Arm Restaurant

If you wanted to get lunch fast and cheap in 1931 you might have stopped at one of John Thompson’s New York restaurants. According to Tom Miller (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com), there were no waiters in Thompson’s restaurants. “Customers purchased foods like cold corned beef, cold boiled ham, smoked boiled tongue or hot frankfurters at a counter. They then took their trays to ‘one arm’ chairs lined up along the wall. There were no tables; instead customers ate at what was similar to turn-of-the-century school desks.” E.B. White stopped in for a visit:

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…John Thompson’s name is emblazoned no less than four times on the front of his restaurant at No. 33 Park Row. No-frills interior featured “one-arm” chairs and a self-service coffee urn. (Museum of the City of New York /daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

Cinematic Eyeful

The Pre-Code comedy-drama Transatlantic was light on plot but heavy on deep-focus cinematography (by James Wong Howe) that wowed New Yorker critic John Mosher in 1931…and still wows critics today.

High Seas Hijinks…The pre-code comedy-drama Transatlantic wowed critic John Mosher not so much for its storyline as for its style and cinematography. Clockwise, from left, Edmund Lowe has his hands full with Lois Moran, Greta Nissen and Myrna Loy. (IMDB)
NIFTY NOIR…John Mosher loved the avant-garde, noir-ish stylings of Transatlantic. This film by director William K. Howard and cinematographer James Wong Howe is still admired today. A MoMA cinema site notes that the film’s style anticipates Citizen Kane by ten years. (pre-code.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

We begin with another socialite endorsing Pond’s Cold Cream — Mrs. Potter d’Orsay Palmer nee Maria Eugenia Martinez de Hoz. She was wife No. 2 of Potter d’Orsay Palmer, son of the wealthy family of Chicago Palmer House fame…they would divorce in 1937, and the playboy Potter would marry two more times before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1939 (the result of a drunken brawl). Maria Eugenia would remarry and return to her homeland of Argentina to raise a family…

…it seems Maria Eugenia didn’t limit herself to endorsing cold cream, as this next ad attests (from the May, 1934 Delineator magazine)…

…Maria Eugenia endorsed Camels because they were marketed to women back then, as were Marlboro cigarettes, the makers of which continued their silly handwriting and jingle-writing contests to promote the brand (note the examples “Miss Eileen Fitzgerald” offered of what defined a modern lifestyle)…

…the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes, on the other hand, originally marketed their product to men, but they made sure women were included in the copy beneath the image — “yes, there’s a big woman vote” …

…you may recall the subtle ways Liggett & Myers began to lure women smokers back in 1928 with this ad campaign…

…you see a lot of tobacco ads because cigarette manufacturers were one of the few industries still turning a profit during the first years of the Depression…men and women were smoking like crazy, maybe to calm their nerves over the performance of their refrigerators…

…one could always calm the nerves by taking a spin in a new Plymouth, bargain-priced at just $535…

…and we have another Arno-esque ad by Herbert Roese, touting the wonders of “New York’s Most Interesting Newspaper”…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with this wonderful spot drawing by Barbara Shermund

…and an illustration by Reginald Marsh of a Coney Island crowd that graced facing pages in “The Talk of the Town”…

…here’s one of four drawings Walter Schmidt contributed to the New Yorker between 1931 and 1933…

Perry Barlow illustrated the joys of dining out with the kiddies…

…back to Barbara Shermund, who eavesdropped on her debs…

Kemp Starrett gave us a proud moment at the county fair…

I. Klein offered up a new twist on the term “family planning”…

John Held Jr assessed the aesthetic value of chunky mission-style furniture…

…and Peter Arno reappeared in the cartoons with this full-page illustration of some desperate climbers…

Next Time: Asphalt Jungle…

The Road to 1931

The New Yorker entered its sixth year in 1931, and despite the deepening Depression managed to stay afloat and even gain new subscribers. Perhaps more than ever folks needed that weekly dose of levity the magazine ably supplied.

Rea Irvin rang out the old and welcomed the new with back-to-back covers for the Dec. 27, 1930 and Jan. 3, 1931 issues. The second cover commemorated the New York Auto Salon, mentioned later in this blog entry.

That isn’t to say the magazine’s contributors donned rose-colored glasses. Rather, they commiserated with their fellow Americans:

CRANKY COUPLETS…Ogden Nash lent his droll verse to the nation’s economic woes. In 1931, while working as an editor at Doubleday, Nash submitted a number of poems to the New Yorker and spent three months working on the magazine’s editorial staff. (poeticous.com)

Over the course of 1930 many Americans, including Ogden Nash, woke to the fact that their business and political leaders were ill-suited to lift them out of the economic mess, and were likely responsible for it in the first place. At the top of the list was President Herbert Hoover, who was profiled in the New Yorker in three installments beginning with the Dec. 27 issue. This brief excerpt gives you a glimpse into a very different White House 89 years ago:

The first installment of the profile was accompanied by a Cyrus Baldridge portrait of the president (left), but the final two installments featured a less-than-flattering Abe Birnbaum rendering that first appeared in the New Yorker in the March 2, 1929 issue:

*  *  *

Vorse Was a Force

Social critic, labor activist and novelist Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966) was no fan of Herbert Hoover or wealthy business tycoons, and in the first decades of the 20th century joined with Lincoln Steffens and other muckraking journalists in advocating for social reform. Vorse, however, also had a background in fiction writing and in observational pieces like the one below (excerpts) in which she commented on the rustic old ladies she found everywhere in the city:

FOR THE CAUSE…Mary Heaton Vorse (left) with fellow activists preparing to leave on a relief expedition to aid striking Kentucky miners, 1932. At right, a 1925 drawing of Vorse by Hugo Gellert. (nysut.org/Smithsonian)

 *  *  *

The Mystic

Before the Beatles made the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a famed Transcendental Meditation guru in the 1960s, there was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Russian/Greek/Armenian spiritual teacher of the “Fourth Way,” which promised a path to a higher state of consciousness and full human potential. Gurdjieff also enjoyed living in a French chateau and taking trips to New York to share his wisdom with eager Americans, including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “The Talk of the Town” had these observations on the visiting mystic:

HE COULD SEE THINGS…George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, in an undated photo.

 *  *  *

Sunny Days

Forget about financial woes or spiritual dilemmas. What are you going to wear next summer? Fashion writer Lois Long (“On and Off the Avenue”) asked the question and looked to the south for some answers:

…numerous ads peppered the Dec. 27 issue urging Manhattan’s snowbirds to dress appropriately for the warmer climes…

…and operators of “PlaneTrains” promised to get them there as quickly as possible…

…and if you were headed to Cuba you could stay at the brand new National Hotel…

…here’s what it looked like three years ago when I was in Havana…I can guarantee you the hotel service was WAY better in 1931…

…whether home or abroad, New Yorkers were celebrating the New Year by “dancing to the melodies of Old Vienna” and smoking like chimneys…

…a popular New Year’s Eve destination was the The Roosevelt Hotel, where Guy Lombardo’s orchestra helped ring in the New Year from 1929 (radio’s first nationwide New Year’s Eve broadcast) to 1959…

I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in late December, and found Lombardo still presiding over the bar…

…we also find New Year’s revelry in the cartoons, with Mary Petty

Izzy Klein

Otto Soglow...

…and Leonard Dove

…and for those who stayed home, we have this scene of domestic bliss from Don Herold

 *  *  *

On to the Jan. 3, 1931 issue, we have Howard Brubaker (“Of All Things”) waxing sour on the state of the economy…

…so what a better way to cheer up than to look at shiny new cars, especially the ones almost no one could afford? The New Yorker paid another visit to the New York Automobile Salon at the Grand Central Palace…

…according to the article, 1931 was “a streamline year,” and leading the way was the REO motor car company, which despite its innovative ways would drop its car line altogether in 1936 — a casualty of the Depression…

FLOWING FENDERS…The 1931 REO Royale was a trendsetter, introducing streamlining designs. The Great Depression would cause REO to abandon the manufacture of automobiles in 1936. (historicvehicle.org)

…over at the Chrysler Building, which served as that corporation’s headquarters from 1930 until the mid-1950s, new cars were on display on the building’s first two floors…

CATHEDRAL OF CARS…The first two floors of the Chrysler Building served as an auto showroom during the building’s first decade. (Wikipedia/thewelcomeblog.com)

…we segue to our advertisements, many from car companies touting their displays at the New York Automobile Salon. Like REO, Marmon was noted for various innovations, including the introduction of the rear-view mirror. It also manufactured a stunning 16-cylinder automobile that was on display at the 1931 Salon. But also like REO, the Depression proved too much for Marmon, and it was defunct by 1933…

SLEEK…The 1931 Marmon Sixteen. (RM Auctions)

…another car company that would fall to the Depression was the luxury brand Pierce Arrow. Without a lower-priced car in its lineup to provide cash flow, the company ceased operation by 1938…

…by contrast, the Chrysler Corporation had several low-priced models to help it survive the lean years and enable it to produce its luxury model, the Imperial…

ANOTHER FIRST…Chrysler was also known for its innovative ways. A custom version of the Chrysler Imperial Eight included a dictaphone. (hemmings.com)

…the Hudson Motor Car Company is long gone, but in 1930 it was the third largest carmaker after Ford and Chevrolet, and instead of luxury it touted the affordability of its cars, especially its low-priced Essex line, priced $1,000 less than its predecessor from ten years earlier. The $595 Essex would be comparable to a $9,000 to $10,000 car today (by comparison, the 1931 Marmon or Imperial would set you back somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, roughly equivalent to a $46,000 – $78,000 range today)…

…so let’s say the Depression has wiped you out and you can’t even afford an Essex…well you could try to “smoke your way back to normalcy”…

…or be like this pair, who seem content with their Chesterfields…

…of course the movies were another means of escape from the cruel world, and Paramount’s Publix Theatres promised plenty of sex to ease troubled minds…

PRE-CODE WORLD…During a brief period of the early sound era, many films used both sex and violence to attract audiences to theaters. The Publix Theatres ad above implied that these three films had plenty of sex, or “it” — clockwise, from top left, Fredric March ran around in his skivvies in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); Mary Brian and Ina Claire portrayed acting sisters Gwen and Julie Cavendish in The Royal Family of Broadway; David Manners and Ruth Chatterton shared an embrace in The Right to Love (1930); and Marlene Dietrich lured a schoolmaster into a life of madness and despair in The Blue Angel (1929-30).

…and we close with our cartoonists…Reginald Marsh heralded the new year with this two-page spread depicting the heavens glorifying dental hygiene…

Leonard Dove inked two cartoons featuring table talk…

E. McNerney continued the New Yorker tradition of cartoons featuring rich old men and their gold diggers…

Gardner Rea pondered the value of kitsch in a regal setting…

A.S. Foster looked in on a crowd of John Does at a speakeasy…

…and Lillian Reed took us shopping with a very specific request…

Next Time: Requiem For the Flapper…

 

Waldorf’s Salad Days

While Manhattan is home to some of the world’s most iconic buildings, it is also known for knocking them down. Sometimes it was a matter of changing tastes, but more often than not it was the steamroller of economic progress that flattened any sentimental soul that stood in its path.

May 11, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The old Waldorf-Astoria symbolized the wealth and power of the Gilded Age, but in the Roaring Twenties the storied hotel — with all its Victorian turrents, gables and other doo-dads — looked hopelessly dated despite being just a bit over 30 years old (the Waldorf opened in 1893, and the much larger Astoria rose alongside it four years later). A group of businessmen, led by former mayor Al Smith, bought the property to build the Empire State Building — an art deco edifice that would scream Jazz Age but would be completed at the start of the Great Depression. The New Yorker’s James Thurber reported on the old hotel’s last day in the May 11, 1929 “Talk of the Town”…

THEY LIKED RICH FOOD…1909 banquet in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring US Steel founder Elbert Gary. (Wikimedia Commons)

Thurber wrote of the hundreds of club women who mourned the loss of their familiar meeting rooms, and one elevator operator who would not be joining their chorus of sobs…

HEYDAY…the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel circa 1900, and the cover for the menu announcing “The Final Dinner.” The menu included a cherrystone clam cocktail, turtle soup, crown of bass (in lobster sauce), mignon of spring lamb (chasseur), supreme of guinea hen (tyrolienne), bombe mercedes ice cream, and coffee. (Bowery Boys/Museum of the City of New York)
THEY’RE SELLING YOU…Illustration depicting an auction of items from the hotel. (Museum of the City of New York)

In the “Reporter at Large” column, humorist Robert Benchley supplied his own perspective on the closing of the venerable hotel, and the countless speeches that reverberated between its walls…

A 1903 image of the Grand Ball Room, “arranged for private theatricals. “(New York Public Library)

Benchley offered excerpts from dozens of hypothetical speeches, and then offered this final benediction to the old hotel:

In his “The Sky Line” column, architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) looked in on the newly completed American Woman’s Association clubhouse and residence for young women on West 58th Street. Developed by Anne Morgan, daughter of J.P. Morgan, the building contained 1,250 rooms and featured a swimming pool, restaurant, gymnasium and music rooms along with various meeting rooms.

TRAINING GROUND…At left, the American Woman’s Association clubhouse and residence in 1932. At right, view of the central atrium of the AWA residence, now the Hudson Hotel. Below, the Hudson Bar (renovated after 1997), which has been featured in a number of TV shows including Gossip Girl and Sex and the City. (Liza DeCamp/Nan Palmero top right/RoryRory bottom)

In a 1998 New York Times “Streetscapes” feature, Christoper Gray cites a 1927 Saturday Evening Post interview with Anne Morgan, who said she believed women were at a temporary disadvantage in the business world and therefore founded the American Woman’s Association as “a training school for leadership, a mental exchange” where women “can hear what other women are doing.” After the AWA went bankrupt in 1941, the building was converted into The Henry Hudson Hotel, open to both men and women. From 1982 until 1997 the building’s second through ninth floors served as the headquarters for public television station WNET. The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour (now the PBS NewsHour) was broadcast from the building during that time.

*  *  *

Punching for Peace

The old New Yorker was filled with personalities virtually unknown today, but who had tremendous influence in their time. Among them was Alpheus Geer (1863-1941), who founded the Marshall Stillman Movement, which promoted the sport of boxing as a way to steer young men away from a life of crime. An excerpt (with illustration by Hugo Gellert):

Alpheus Geer help found Stillman’s Gym in 1919 as a way to promote his Marshall Stillman Movement methods of boxing. Many famous fighters trained in the dank, smoky atmosphere of Stillman’s, including Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano. Pictured above is famed boxing trainer Charley Goldman leaving Stillman’s Gym, circa 1940s. (easthamptonstar.com)

 *  *  *

Before we turn to the ads, this “Out of Town” column from the back pages struck an unusual tone regarding the types of tourists planning a summer in Germany…

…and from our advertisers, this ad promoting Louis Sherry’s new “informal restaurant” at Madison and 62nd Street…

WHAT’S IN A NAME…The Louis Sherry restaurant at Madison and 62nd, circa 1930. At right, the building today, now occupied by the French fashion company Hermès. (McKim, Mead & White / nycarchitecture.com)

Louis Sherry ran a famous restaurant at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street from 1898 to 1919 (like many famed restaurants, Prohibition helped put an end to it). Sherry died in 1926, so the owners of the new restaurant were merely trading on his name. In addition to a “delicacies shop” (gourmet foods were arrayed in the plate glass windows) Louis Sherry also contained a tea room, ice cream parlor and a balcony restaurant…

…like the Sherry restaurant, the new Hotel Delmonico traded on the fame of the old Delmonico’s Restaurant, which also fell victim to Prohibition by 1923. Today the hotel is best known as the place where the Beatles stayed in August 1964…

…here is another ad from Clicquot Club trying its best to sell its aged “Ginger Ale Supreme” to dry Americans. Famed avant-garde-art patron and party host Count Etienne de Beaumont (who looked like he’d had a few of something) testified how Cliquot “blends very agreeably” with the champagne most Americans cannot have…

…well, if you couldn’t have a legal drink, maybe you could entertain your friends with TICKER…”The New Wall Street Game That is Sweeping America!” My guess is this game didn’t sell so well after Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929…

…those BVD’s aren’t good enough for you? Then try the “Aristocrat of fabrics” (and have a smoke while you toss the medicine ball around with the gents)…

…and here is more evidence that the Roaring Twenties were losing their growl even before the big crash—the straight flapper figure was out; it was now the “season of curves”…

…a look at some of the cheap ads in the back of the magazine, including the one at bottom left from the Sam Harris Theater that played on the Lucky Strike cigarette slogan (“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet!”)…

…one of the films featured at the Sam Harris Theatre was Madame X, a movie about a woman who leaves her wealthy (but cold) husband, turns to a life of crime, then tries to reclaim her son. The ad is correct in that it did create something of a sensation when it was released. It is also important to note that the film premiered at the Sam Harris for a reason: The director, Lionel Barrymore, didn’t want audiences to think his film was just another song and dance picture (like most of the first sound films) but rather a serious drama presented at a legitimate stage venue rather than a movie house…

UP TO NO GOOD…Ullrich Haupt as the cardsharp Laroque and Ruth Chatterton as Jacqueline Floriot in Madame X. At right, ad in Photoplay promoting the film. Click to enlarge. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

…back to our ads, here’s a remarkably crude one from the racist, women-hating people who made Muriel cigars (they being Lorillard, who also manufactured Old Golds)…

…and a softer message from The Texas Company, manufacturer of Texaco “golden” motor oil…

…the artist who rendered the above couple in those golden hues was American illustrator McClelland Barclay (1891-1943). Published widely in The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, and Cosmopolitan, Barclay was known for war posters as well as pin-ups:

VERSATILE…Navy recruitment poster by McClelland Barclay, and an illustration for the cover of a 1942 Saturday Home Magazine. (Wikipedia/illustrationhouse.com)

In 1940 Barclay reported for active duty in the US Navy, serving in the New York recruiting office and illustrating posters. Determined to be a front-line combat artist, he served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres until he was reported missing in action after his boat was torpedoed in the Solomon Islands.

 *  *  *

Our comics are supplied by Alan Dunn, who probed the vagaries of movie magazine gossip…

…and Reginald Marsh, known for his social realistic depictions of working life in New York, including these stevedores eyeing a regatta…

…and finally, Gardner Rea looked in on a young man displaying early signs of cynicism…

Next Time…How Charles Shaw Felt About Things…