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…

 

The Ordeal of Michael Arlen

The March 28 “Talk of the Town” ponders “what sort of paces a visiting literary lion may be expected to put through.”

The “literary lion” in question was writer Michael Arlen, who was planning his escape from New York  by reserving a cabin on the Olympic for its April 18 sailing: “It is expected that very few of his writing compatriots in London will venture America-wards after he reports on the ritual to which he was subjected.” The “ritual,” it seems, was Arlen’s constant exposure to various literary hangers-on and assorted socialites.

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March 28, 1925 cover by Ray Rohn (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Arlen’s real name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian writer transplanted to England who was most famous for his satirical romances set in English smart society. He also wrote psychological thrillers, including The Gentleman from America, filmed in 1956 (the year Arlen died) as a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was well known in New York and London society, a dandy who resembled many of the characters he portrayed in his novels.

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Arlen in 1925 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Returning to the “ritual,” Arlen received “the reasonably constant chaperonage, at tea time, of John Farrar” (editor of the literary magazine The Bookman) who took it upon himself to add Arlen’s publishing interests to his duties (Farrar would go on to found the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart, and later Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Talk” also noted that Arlen was “admitted into the game known as meeting Miss Elsie de Wolfe.”

A bit more about Miss de Wolfe: In the September 14, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear observed that “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe.” A prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society, de Wolfe was also an American stage actress and author of the bestselling 1913 book, The House in Good Taste.

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Elsie de Wolfe in 1925 (Architectural Digest)

During Arlen’s first two weeks in America, de Wolfe arranged no less than three formal gatherings, each with the purpose of introducing the author to herself. “Talk” also reported that Arlen was invited to a costume party given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, for which Paramount Studios producer Jesse Lasky “gracefully supplied (Arlen) with a gypsy costume.” It was noted that Lasky was there to arrange some movie work with Arlen to occur later in the fall, when the author would return to New York to attend the opening of the Broadway play The Green Hat, based on the 1924 book that made him famous.

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Pola Negri in the 1920s (doctor macro.com)

Arlen was then to depart for Hollywood to “adjust his ideas into adequate scenario form for Miss Pola Negri.” Negri was a Polish stage and screen star world famous for her roles as a femme fatale. Her personal life often made headlines in the gossip magazines of the day, fueled by a series of love affairs that included Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Negri would not land the female lead for The Green Hat; it would eventually go to Greta Garbo in a 1928 film titled A Woman of Affairs.

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Greta Garbo and  John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928), a silent film based on The Green Hat. (ggarbo.weebly.com)

“Talk” reported that “ Mr. Arlen, early in his American visit learned a piece of social usage that has stood him in good stead. This has involved, upon introduction to any stranger, his saying rapidly “Didn’t I meet you at tea?” whereupon the gratified stranger murmurs yes and has become a friend for life. This stratagem is said to have suggested itself to Mr. Arlen when he noticed that the average number of guests at teas in his honor was around two hundred.” The columnist noted that “that this business of becoming a friend for life” was a bit of literary exaggeration, and in reality the magazine:

has seldom seen such atrocious behavior and lack of fundamental good manners as has characterized a large proportion of the people who have been brought forward to met Mr. Arlen. Seemingly ignoring the fact that there was no law compelling their attendance at a function in Mr. Arlen’s honor, ever so many persons have come to his parties with an axe rather awkwardly concealed behind them.

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John McGraw (howstuffworks)

The “Profile” in issue featured John McGraw and proclaimed that he “is baseball…the incarnation of the national sport.” The piece was titled “Mr. Muggsy,” a nickname reportedly detested by McGraw because, as the magazine observed, “it is so perfectly descriptive.”

At the time of the writing, McGraw was manager and part-owner of the New York (baseball) Giants. He still holds the record for the most wins of a manager in the National League.

The issue also featured a humorous column by Frank Sullivan, which took aim at the complexity (and likely graft) of taxicab fares. The caption reads: The Taxicab System is Simple to Any Man with a Master’s Degree.

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The April 4 Issue, the “gypsy-themed party” continues…

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April 4, 1925, cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The following week’s issue of “The Talk of Town” (April 4) offered more details regarding the “gypsy-themed costume party” given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst at the Hotel Ritz-Carlton and attended by Michael Arlen.

The party was in honor of Ambassador Alexander Pollock Moore’s departure to his Spanish post (he left the post later that year and served as ambassador to Peru in 1928-29. He died at age 63 in 1930).

The item noted that the widower Moore (his wife, famed stage actress Lillian Russell, died in 1922) during an earlier Condé Nast event for the “theatrical and literary world,” never rose from his chair without scattering to the winds a dozen or more ingénues who had been draping themselves around him…”

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The tented ceiling and glittering chandeliers of the Ritz-Carlton’s Crystal Room. The hotel at 46th and Madison opened in 1911 and was torn down just 40 years later, in 1951.

“Talk” shared accounts from the New York American and the New York Mirror that described the Ritz’s famous Crystal Room as decorated to resemble a “gypsy camp,” complete with organ grinder and monkey wandering through the crowd.

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A much thinner W.C. Fields of the vaudeville circuit, here in a still from the movie Sally of the Sawdust (1925) (Film Forum)

Entertainment at the event featured a cabaret with vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who apparently “gazed at his distinguished audience and allowed his thoughts to play with the wealth of juggleable material that confronted him.”

Finally, “Of All Things” noted that “The Turks are said to be mobilizing a hundred thousand men in an effort to affect the Mosul boundary decision but, despite this display of force, we have every confidence that right and justice and Christian civilization will prevail and the British will get their oil.”

The League of Nations awarded Mosul to Iraq, and to the British a 25-year mandate over Iraq (at this writing Mosul is firmly under the control of the Islamic State).

“Books” looked at Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and suggested that it is not “A-One Maugham.” It also mentioned the New Yorker’s own Alexander Woollcott and his The Story of Irving Berlin, described as “uncommonly pleasant reading.”