Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Gene Tunney was not your typical boxer. Holder of the heavyweight title from 1926 to 1928, he defeated his rival Jack Dempsey in 1926 and again in 1927 in the famous “Long Count Fight.” But Tunney was no Palooka—he preferred to be known as a cultured gentleman, and made a number of friends in the literary world including George Bernard Shaw, Ernest Hemingway and Thornton Wilder.

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January 14, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

So when given the opportunity to say a few words, Tunney made the most of it, including at a dinner hosted by boxing and hockey promoter Tex Rickard to honor champions in various sports. The New Yorker’s E.B. White was there tell us about it:

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FETED FOR FEATS…World champion athletes are shown here from top row, left to right; Babe Ruth (baseball), Gene Tunney (boxing), Johnny Weissmuller (swimming), Bill Cook (hockey). On the bottom row is from left to right, Bill Tilden (tennis), Bobby Jones (golf), Fred Spencer and Charlie Winters (six-day bicycle race).

While Tunney was doubtless composing his thoughts at the banquet table, baseball legend Babe Ruth was wishing he could be someplace else…

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…like hanging out with his old buddy Jack Dempsey…

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BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS…Babe Ruth having breakfast with his friend, heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, at Ruth’s residence at the Ansonia Hotel in New York City, 1927. Dempsey reigned as the champ from 1919 until 1926, when he was defeated by Gene Tunney. (captainsblog.info)

Instead, the Babe would have to listen to a surprise speech by Tunney, who sought to prove to those in attendance that he had brains to match his brawn. No doubt to the relief of many in attendance, New York City’s flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker, was able to return the proceedings to party mode.

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THAT’LL DO, GENE, THAT’LL DO…Newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney (center) meets with New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker (right) at City Hall, September 1926. (josportsinc.com)

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The New Yorker writers found little to like about Hollywood, but Charlie Chaplin could always be counted on to knock out a humorous film. At least most of the time. Here is what “The Talk of the Town” had to say about his latest, The Circus:

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LIGHTEN UP, CHARLIE…Merna Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin and Harry Crocker in The Clown (1928). (alamy)

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Give ‘Em Dirty Laundry

In these days of clickbait and other news designed to attract our prurient interest, we can look back 89 years a see that the tabloids were doing much of the same, particularly in Bernarr Macfadden’s New York Graphic, which was making the most of the final days of death row inmates Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray…

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TSK, TSK…Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (left), received a tidy sum to write about convicted murderer Ruth Snyder for the New York Evening Graphic. (Wikipedia/Murderpedia)

Former lovers Snyder and Gray were sentenced to death in 1927 for the premeditated murder of Snyder’s husband (they went to the electric chair at Sing Sing prison on Jan. 12, 1928). Newspapers across the country sensationalized their trial, but the Graphic went the extra step by paying large sums to celebrity correspondents, including evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, to write about the sordid case. Sister Aimee used her Graphic column to encourage young men to “want a wife like mother — not a Red Hot cutie.” Semple herself would later be accused of an affair, but then what else is new in the business of casting stones?

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FAKE NEWS…Before the National Enquirer and Weekly World News came along, Benarr Mcfadden’s Evening Graphic was the tabloid of choice among the less discerning. This issue from March 17, 1927, depicted silent actor Rudolph Valentino meeting the famed tenor Enrico Caruso in heaven. The Graphic was famous for these “Composographs,” — images cut and pasted together using the heads or faces of current celebrities and glued onto staged images created by employees in Macfadden’s studio. (bernarrmacfadden.com)

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Even His Skivvies?

We can also look back 89 years and see that people were just as celebrity-crazed then as they are now. Charles Lindbergh could barely keep the clothes on his back while being pursued by adoring mobs, according to “Talk of the Town”…

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KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF MY BVDS

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Kindred Spirits

Dorothy Parker wrote a vigorous, even impassioned defense of the late dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Reading and Writing.” Parker reviewed Duncan’s posthumously published autobiography, My Life, which she found “interesting and proudly moving” even if the book itself was “abominably written,” filled with passages of “idiotic naïveté” and “horrendously flowery verbiage.” In this “mess of prose” Parker also found passion, suffering and glamour—three words that Parker could have used to describe her own life.

Parker elaborated on the word “glamour,” which she thought had been cheapened in her day to something merely glittery and all surface. True glamour, wrote Parker, was that of Isadora Duncan, coming from her “great, torn, bewildered, foolhardy soul.” Parker concluded with this plea:

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REAL GLAMOUR…Isadora Duncan in an undated photo. (bustle.com)

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New Kid on the Block

Yet another high-rise dwelling was available to Jazz Age New Yorkers—One Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. One Fifth Avenue was an apartment with the word “hotel” attached to justify its 27-story height. To meet zoning requirements, the apartments had “pantries” instead of kitchens. But then again, your “servant” would fetch your dinner anyway…

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GOING UP…The art deco landmark One Fifth Avenue signaled a dramatic change from the four-story mansions that once occupied the site.  (New York Public Library)

Historical note: One Fifth Avenue marked a dramatic change in the character of Washington Square, one of the most prestigious residential neighborhoods of early New York City. A previous occupant of the One Fifth Avenue site was the brownstone mansion of William Butler Duncan. In addition to One Fifth Avenue, the residences at 3, 5, and 7 Fifth Avenue were also demolished to make way for the new art deco “apartment hotel.”

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DUST TO DUST…The William Butler Duncan residence at One Fifth Avenue. (daytoninmanhattan)

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To close, a two-page spread by Helen Hokison exploring one woman’s challenge with the “flapper bob” (sorry about the crease in the scan–that is how it is reproduced in the online archive). Click the image to enlarge.

 

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And a bit of fun on the streetcar, courtesy of cartoonist Leonard Dove…

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Next Time: Machine Age Bromance…

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Age of the Talkies

The Oct. 15, 1927 issue featured the premiere of the film The Jazz Singer. Although the New Yorker found the story a bit dull, it also recognized that the film’s use of sound marked a significant turning point in the short history of cinema.

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October 15, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The Jazz Singer was not the first film to employ sound, but as the New Yorker review pointed out, it was the first to effectively use synchronized sound (the industry standard Vitaphone technique) in a way that improved the motion picture.

The film featured only two minutes worth of sound dialogue, so most of the spoken lines were still presented on intertitle cards commonly used in silent films. But it was Al Jolson’s recorded voice, belting out popular tunes including “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” that really wowed audiences. At the end of the film Jolson himself appeared on stage before an audience “clapping and bellowing with joy”…

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IT SINGS! IT TALKS!!!…Al Jolson as Jack Robin and Eugenie Besserer as his mother, Sara Rabinowitz, in The Jazz Singer. One attendee at the premiere recalled that when Jolson and Besserer began their dialogue scene, “the audience became hysterical.” (wired.com)

It is interesting that as early as 1927, and even with the relatively crude sound of Vitaphone, the New Yorker was already predicting the advent of a new kind of star (and the decline of the stage actor)…

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BLACK TIE EVENT…A Vitaphone projection setup at a 1926 demonstration. Western Electric engineer E. B. Craft, left, is holding a soundtrack disc, which was essentially a phonograph record. The turntable, on a thick tripod base, is at lower center. (Wikipedia)

As for the movie itself, well, there was Jolson, beloved by many. Perhaps it’s the sound quality, or the 89 years of changing tastes, but I cannot for life of me understand what audiences (or the New Yorker) saw that was so appealing about Al Jolson as a performer.

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THAT WAS THEN…Al Jolson as Jack Robin in The Jazz Singer. Although performing in blackface is considered racist today, Jolson’s use of blackface was integral to the film in that it was tied to Jack’s own Jewish heritage and his struggle for identity. Of course that doesn’t make it any less offensive today. (theredlist)

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Absent-minded Ambassador

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” offered some curious observations about the new ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow.

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SON-IN-LAW…Aviator Charles Lindbergh would marry Dwight Morrow’s daughter, Anne, in 1929. in this photo from 1931 are, from left, Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Elisabeth Morrow, and Dwight Morrow.

Morrow has been widely hailed as a brilliant ambassador with a keen intellect. The New Yorker, however, offered some additional perspective on the man:

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Flight of Fancy

In the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s famous flight, the New Yorker (and the rest of the country) continued its fascination with air travel, which at this point was confined to military and commercial pilots, stunt flyers and the well-to-do.

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The Fokker F.VII pictured above is likely the same plane or very similar to the one owned by Texas oilman William Denning. The interior depicted below is also similar to what is described in the New Yorker article. (aviation-history.com)

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RIP Isadora Duncan

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, wrote of the funeral of famed modern dancer Isadora Duncan in her column, “Letter from Paris.” Duncan was killed in a freak accident on the night of Sept. 14, 1927 when her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels of the car in which she was riding, breaking her neck.

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Isadora Duncan (ati.com)

Other items of note from the Oct. 15 issue, E.B. White contributed this ditty…

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…and Corey Ford, who gave the fictional Eustace Tilley his persona, wrote of Tilley’s feat crossing Broadway in a parody of adventure stories popular at the time. An excerpt:

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And finally, Peter Arno explored childhood angst among the smart set:

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Next Time: Electric Wonders…

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Shock of the New

The Roaring Twenties saw astonishing changes to American life, including a dramatic break from the technologies and habits of the past. Icemen gave way to electric refrigerators, broadcast radio brought entertainment and news into living rooms, and Lindbergh made flying something everyone wanted to try.

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May 21, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

Despite the mechanized horrors of World War I, most people were enchanted by the idea of man and machine coming together to make a better world. In the U.S. the machine-age exuberance was expressed largely in capitalist terms, while many European and Soviet intellectuals saw the machine as integral to the progress of socialism. The Machine-Age Exposition in New York City (May 16-28 at 119 West 57th Street) celebrated all facets through a unique event that brought together architecture, engineering, industrial arts and modern art from a number of nations.

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Cover of the Exposition Catalogue. (monoskop.org)
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Scanned illustration of an airplane from the Exposition catalogue.

The exhibition, initiated by Jane Heap of the literary magazine The Little Review, included exhibits from the U.S., Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Artists in the exhibition represented a Who’s Who of modernists and futurists — Alexander Archipenko, Marcel Duchamp, Hugh Ferriss, Man Ray and others who celebrated the aural and visual cacophony of the age as well as the gleaming precision of machines and machine-like buildings.

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Model of a futuristic parking garage on display at the Exposition. (Scanned  image from the Exposition catalogue)

New Yorker writer E.B. White shared in the enthusiasm with this bit for “The Talk of the Town…”

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The Futurist Hugh Ferriss contributed this design of a glass skyscraper to the Machine Age Exposition. A thing of dreams in the 1920s, such buildings are now commonplace in cities around the world. (Scanned from the Exposition catalogue)

The sleek and glass-walled buildings featured at the Exhibition were fantastic images in 1927, when most large-scale buildings were still being rendered in brick and stone in various neoclassical, federal or gothic styles.

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Image from Exposition featured student studio apartments at the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. (Scan from the Exposition catalogue)

Little did visitors to the Exposition realize that the radical Bauhaus style on display would become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the second half of their century, thanks not to some new machine age of peace and harmony but rather because of the annihilation of the Second World War and the mass migration from Europe of architects, artists, scientists and other professionals fleeing Nazi oppression.

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This image of giant steam boilers from Russia was displayed at the Exposition. (Scan from the Exposition catalogue)

It was also a time when it was believed technology was on the verge of conquering nature, and that the invention of air-conditioning and “Vita-Glass” would create indoor environments with all of the health benefits but none of the discomforts of the outdoors:

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Children at rest in a “Vita-Glass” pavilion, built in 1927 at Stannington Sanatorium, Northumberland. Used primarily in the treatment of those with pulmonary TB, the glass was designed to allow ultraviolet rays to penetrate easily while protecting patients from the elements. (northumberlandarchives.com)

The invention of sulfa drugs and antibiotics were still a few years away, so health providers were excited about the possibilities of these artificial environments.

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In the “A Reporter at Large” column, Russell Owen wrote about the intrepid flyers who were vying to become the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. He began the piece with a tribute to French ace pilot Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed wartime buddy François Coli, who disappeared during their May 8 attempt to fly from Paris to New York.

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A 1927 postcard commemorating Nungesser, Coli and their airplane, The White Bird (L’Oiseau Blanc).

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Owen also wrote about those who would soon be taking the same daring leap into “the illimitable terror of space”…

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Although Lindbergh had yet to accomplish his feat, he had already been singled out as a loner and a bit of an odd duck:

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Lindbergh is helped into his flying togs at Roosevelt-Metro field on Long Island before the start of his record Atlantic flight. (Getty)

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Editors of “Talk of the Town” also checked in on famed dancer Isadora Duncan, her eldest daughter Anna, and Isadora’s “amazing dancing family…”

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Anna Duncan dances La Berceuse, choreographed by Isadora Duncan with music by Frédéric Chopin, in 1920. Photo by Arnold Genthe. (Tanzarchiv, Cologne, Germany)

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Isadora’s Dancers, by photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston. (Wikimedia Commons)

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And finally, an excerpt of a poem contributed by Marion Clinch Calkins–who often wrote humorous rhymes for the New Yorker under the pen name Majollica Wattles. Here she riffs on Horace’s “poetry of pleasure…”

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Next Time: The Flying Fool…

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Living High in ’27

It’s 1927 and the New Yorker is almost two years old. After a shaky start the magazine found its voice (and a lot of advertising revenue) and moved forward with a solid stable of contributors that would give the magazine a style that persists to this day.

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Jan. 1, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

Before I dive in, let’s get a snapshot of the country in 1927, courtesy of Bill Bryson’s excellent book, One Summer: America, 1927.

Bryson describes America as “staggeringly well-off in 1927,” with homes (especially in urban areas) shining with sleek appliances—refrigerators, radios, telephones, electric fans and razors—“that would not become standard in other countries for a generation or more.”

He writes that “of the nation’s 26.8 million households, 11 million had a phonograph, 10 million had a car, 17.5 million had a phone…42 percent of all that was produced in the world was produced in the United States.” Bryson also notes that in 1927 the U.S. made 80 percent of the world’s movies and 85 percent of the world’s cars, and that the state of Kansas alone had more cars than France.

It was also the year Babe Ruth would hit a record 60 home runs, and Charles Lindbergh would fly the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.

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The Jan. 1 issue featured a profile of world-famous dancer Isadora Duncan, who was living in sad decline in Paris. Particularly acclaimed in Europe for her free dance style, the California-born Duncan also gained notoriety (mostly in puritanical America) for her flouting of traditional mores and morality. Today, she is mostly known for the freak accident that killed her. More on that below.

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“Profiles” illustration of Isadora Duncan by Hugo Gellert.

The profile, written by Paris correspondent Janet “Gênet” Flanner under the pen name “Hippolyta,” noted that Duncan was “the last of the trilogy of great female personalities our century produced. Two of them, Duse and Bernhardt, have gone to their elaborate national tombs. Only Isadora Duncan, the youngest, the American, remains wandering the European earth.”

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FLOAT LIKE A BUTTERFLY…Isadora Duncan dancing with scarf, 1918. (Heritage Images / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Little did Flanner know that Duncan would also be dead before the year was over. Here is how the Wikipedia entry on Duncan describes her death:

On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked Duncan to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but Duncan would only agree to wear the scarf.

As they departed, Duncan reportedly said to Desti and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan’s actual last words were, “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the shawl almost immediately after the car left.

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NO SEAT BELTS, EITHER…A 1927 Italian Amilcar, similar to the one in which Duncan met her end. (irrational geographic)

Referring to Duncan’s demise, the writer Gertrude Stein remarked: “Affectations can be dangerous.”

Next Time: Those Jaunty Jalopies…

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