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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Slices of 1920s New York

The April 11, 1925 issue of The New Yorker is a bit of a hodgepodge, which is true of most of the early issues that are pretty spotty in terms of content. Much of the writing is heavily embellished with cheeky asides, wordplay and the like.

I should note at this point that although I am reading every page of every issue, including ads, what I represent here is what catches my eye and appeals to my particular sensibilities. It is by no means a comprehensive survey. Nevertheless, I hope that my selections give you a good sense of the content of the magazine, and the context of the times and places where the action occurs.

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April 11, 1925 cover by Rea Irvin (New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Talk of Town” opened with rumors of a baby at the Coolidge White House, which proved unfounded. There was also a brief item noting that silent film star Gloria Swanson (who will be prominent in the early issues) was back in the states with her husband, the Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraie (the marriage ended in 1931, when the Marquis married actress Constance Bennett).

“Talk” also mentioned that a long anticipated boxing match between Harry Wills and Jack Dempsey had hit a snag with the state athletic commissioner.

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Harry Wills in 1920 (Wikipedia)

Boxing historians consider Wills one of the most egregious victims of the “color line” drawn by white heavyweight champions. Wills fought for more than twenty years (1911–1932), was ranked a No. 1 challenger for the throne, but was denied the opportunity to vie for the title. He spent six years (1920–1926) trying to land a title fight with Dempsey, who was willing to fight Wills but backed out when he did not receive a $100,000 guarantee from a boxing promoter. Wills filed suit for breach of contract, leading the athletic commissioner to bar Dempsey from competing in the state (Dempsey would later lose in points to Gene Tunney in a Philadelphia bout).

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Cartoonist Hans Stengel’s take on upper crust society. The old guard will prove to be a frequent target of subtle jests from the brash young magazine. (New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Talk” offered a brief item on a “new religion” making the rounds, run by A. E. Orage. It noted that he was a disciple of Gurdjieff (and I should add both are offspring of Madame Blatavsky’s Theosophical Society) who “took New York by storm” the previous year. “Talk” said Orage offered classes “in which he intensifies the soul for $10 a month.”

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John Held Jr. woodcut in the April 18, 1925 issue. Held was a high school classmate of New Yorker founder Harold Ross when both lived in Salt Lake City. (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The issue also marked the first appearance of darkly-themed woodcuts on various Victorian subjects by John Held Jr. He is perhaps even more famous for his variety of illustrations throughout the 1920s that captured the flapper era, and no doubt why he is still known for his work today.

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John Held Jr. cover art for a 1922 short story collection by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (Wikipedia)

“Profile” featured famed birth control rights advocate Margaret Sanger in a piece titled “The Child Who Was Mother to a Woman.” Although “Profile” mentioned her great cause, it was largely focused on her defiance of authority, her championing of free speech (which she inherited from her father, a carver of tombstones), and of her ability as a small, timid woman to overcome the fear of speaking in public.

In this issue we are treated to Miguel Covarrubias drawings of contemporary celebrities:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

The “Motion Pictures” section noted the following: “Texas Guinan, Hard Hearted Hannah and the gals of the El Fey Club (recently padlocked, see my entry “A Dry Manhattan”) moved over to the Famous Players Astoria studios the other day to lend the right color to Allan Dwan’s production, “Night Life in New York.”…unless the censors cut the scenes, Kansas, Iowa and other inland points can glimpse how Manhattan spends its evenings when it isn’t trying to get Havana or Oakland on the radio.”

Famous Players Astoria studios (originally Famous Players-Lasky) was located near the Broadway theatre district. Two Marx Brothers films–The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930)–were filmed there. Although Lasky’s Paramount moved the studio operations to California in 1932, the Astoria location continued to thrive, used first by the U.S. Army (beginning in 1942) to make indoctrination films and later by other studios and networks to make everything from music videos, to films (Goodfellas) to television programs (Sesame Street).

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The Lasky Players Studio in Astoria, now home to the Museum of the Moving Image. (Museum of the Moving Image)

The “Motion Pictures” section also mentioned that German director F. W. Murnau (perhaps most famous today for the original 1922 Nosferatu) was coming over to direct. The New Yorker observed that “he the most distinguished screen newcomer since Ernst Lubitsch came over.”

German actors and directors featured prominently in early New Yorker reviews. They were drawn to America by artistic opportunity, however. Later actors and directors (and other artists) would come over to flee Nazi persecution.

But then again, readers of the April 11, 1925 issue don’t know that yet.