The Power Broker

Above: Robert Moses in 1939 with a model of his proposed Battery Bridge Park Reconstruction; at right, 1934 Bryant Park renovation, view to the south on 6th Avenue from 42nd Street. (Wikipedia/NYC Parks Department)

The title for this entry comes from Robert Caro’s landmark 1974 biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which questioned the benefit of Moses’s monumental projects.

March 10, 1934 cover by Abner Dean.

Like him or not, few unelected officials have wielded more power than Moses, who through various appointed positions, including New York City Parks Commissioner, he was able to impose his will on mayors, legislators, congressmen, wealthy burghers, and even, on occasion, The White House. In turn he imposed his will on the city itself, clearing whole neighborhoods to lay down new roads that extended from Manhattan to the tip of Long Island, where neither farmer nor landed gentry could stand in his way. A profile written by Milton MacKaye examined what made Moses tick. An excerpt:

DON’T YOU DARE PUT ME ON HOLD…Relentless doesn’t begin to describe Robert Moses’s pursuit of power. Clockwise, from top left, Moses circa 1930; one of the swimming pools at the west bathhouse at Long Island’s Jones Beach, a project that helped launch Moses’s road to power; Long Island Expressway, which transformed Long Island from farm country (and a retreat for the rich) into a land of bedroom communities and public parks; the east parking field at Jones Beach. (Britannica/Library of Congress/U.S. National Archives)

In another excerpt, MacKaye noted that Moses had been named a member of the Triborough Bridge Authority; Moses would ultimately become chairman, and through this position would possess enormous, unchecked power and influence. Moses was skilled at creating legal structures that would favor his ambitions, burying language into legislative bills and other documents that would make him impervious to influence from mayors, legislators, governors and other elected officials.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF PLAYGROUND…Moses intensely disliked former New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who used the Central Park Casino (top left) as his personal playground. Moses exacted his vengeance by having the historic casino razed in 1935 and replaced with the Rumsey Playground; at right, the 1936 Triborough Bridge (Berenice Abbot photo), a cluster of three separate spans connecting the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. It was developed through Moses’s Triborough Bridge Authority, which was impervious to influence from mayors, legislators and governors. While the city and state were strapped for funds, Moses reaped millions from tolls, which financed his other ambitions; bottom left, Moses in 1938. (Wikipedia/ of Congress)

Final note, I highly recommend Caro’s The Power Broker—it’s a doorstop of a book, but also one of the best biographies of the 20th century and a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand how present-day New York came to be, and how it really works.

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Let’s Talk About the Weather

Robert Benchley, writing under the pseudonym Guy Fawkes, took a turn at “The Wayward Press” column, commenting on the sensationalistic coverage of the weather by the local press. In all fairness to the press, New York City had endured a blizzard as well as the coldest temperature ever recorded for the city: 15 below zero (Fahrenheit) on Feb. 9, 1934. (According to newspaper accounts, it was 14.3 below).

Benchley also commented on journalist Ernest Gruening (1887–1974), who was the editor of the New York Post for only four months in 1934, but during those four months he really shook things up.

EASY BOSS…Ernest Gruening was editor of the New York Post for only four months in 1934, but during that time he made life better for his newsroom employees by implementing an unheard of 40-hour work week. Gruening went on to serve as the governor of the Alaska Territory from 1939 until 1953, and as a U.S. Senator from Alaska from 1959 until 1969. (Photo from 1935 via Wikipedia)

Robert Benchley thought the press made too much of the city’s snowy weather, but these newsreels tell a different story:

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Punch Drunk

Critic John Mosher found slim pickings at the local movie houses, opting for Jimmy Durante’s Palooka as the best of crop:

RIBALDRY AT RINGSIDE…Clockwise from top left, Knobby Walsh (Jimmy Durante) tries to press his advantage during the weigh-in of boxer Al McSwatt (portrayed by William Cagney, the look-alike younger brother of James Cagney) in 1934’s Palooka; Durante thinks he’s found a winning fighter in Joe Palooka (Stuart Erwin); Joe’s father, Pete Palooka (Robert Armstrong) demonstrates why he’s nicknamed “Goodtime” with the help of Trixie (Thelma Todd); Durante with Lupe Vélez, who portrayed glamorous cabaret singer and fortune hunter Nina Madero. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

We start with a couple ads from the back pages…the promoters of Chicago’s famed Stevens Hotel offered a unique perspective as they appealed to New Yorkers to come check out the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair, which proved so popular that it planned to reopen in May for a second year…at right, The Gotham catered to the ladies with a special cocktail bar that only allowed men in the company of a woman…

NICE DIGS…At left, The Stevens Hotel (now Hilton Chicago) and, at right, The Gotham (now The Peninsula) are happily still with us today. (Wikipedia)

…cigarette manufacturers continued to work on their biggest growth market with ads like this one from the Lorillard Tobacco Company…here a perceptive woman chooses to ignore the “brazen claims” of other tobacco companies and makes an informed decision to inhale an Old Gold…

…Liggett & Myers, on the other hand, stuck with this subservient pose, suggesting both are happy with their cigarette, and their station in life…

…another colorful ad from the makers of Schlitz beer…following the end of Prohibition Schlitz quickly became the world’s top-selling brewery, a position it would hold into the 1960s until it switched to cheaper brewing methods…

…the makers of Fisher car bodies (owned by General Motors) continued their lavish two-page spreads touting the homey comforts of their interiors…

…and no more staid ads from luxury carmaker Packard, who ran this full-color, full-bleed spot…

…it’s almost springtime for Hitler, and Germany welcomed American tourists with promises of “Dreaming Villages” (whatever those are), charming health spas and places of romance and beauty…hmmm, no mention of swastika flags hanging from every building, or parades of goose-stepping thugs…

…this public service ad promoted the effectiveness of the National Recovery Act, offering the uptick in underwear sales as a sure sign of economic growth…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with Helen Hokinson experiencing the results of the recent blizzard…

…as did Henry Anton, with a befuddled meteorologist…

Alain (Daniel Brustlein) gave us this wordless gem…

…while Garrett Price presented a sculptor’s greatest challenge…

Alan Dunn gave us two women who expected more pizzazz from a recent funeral…

Peter Arno contended with some Peeping Toms…

…and James Thurber looked in on recent maneuvers in his war between the sexes…

Next Time: Art of the Machine…

American Royalty

Although the United States declared its independence from British Empire nearly 250 years ago, the royal family and all of its requisite trappings persist in the American imagination like a phantom limb.

Oct. 5, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

E.B. White observed as much in the “Notes and Comment” section of the Oct. 5 issue, in which he offered his views regarding the “pother” over the wedding of Calvin Coolidge’s son, John, to Florence Trumbull, the daughter of Connecticut Governor John Harper Trumbull

White could have looked no further than the pages of the New Yorker for further evidence to his claims. The bourgeois yearnings of its readers were reflected in countless advertisements laced with anglophilic pretensions. Here are examples from 1929 issues we have previously examined:

LIVE LIKE A BARON…Ads from the New Yorker of the 1920s often featured illustrations of regal, priggish types such as the couple above, deployed to sell everything from apartments and ginger ale…
…to no-frills automobiles and menthol cigarettes. No product was too pedestrian for the royal treatment.

Writing under the pseudonym “Guy Fawkes,” Robert Benchley commented further on the Coolidge-Trumbull nuptials in the “Wayward Press” column:

HEY CAL, IT’S A WEDDING, NOT A FUNERAL…The former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge was known as “Silent Cal” for good reason, given his reserved demeanor that rarely produced a smile (although he apparently had a dry wit). He poses here at the wedding of his son, John. Left to right are Grace Goodhue Coolidge, President Coolidge, Florence Trumbull Coolidge, John Coolidge; Maud Pierce Usher Trumbull, and Gov. John Trumbull. (
NOT EXACTLY KING’S ROAD…Onlookers line the street near the Congregational church in Plainview, Conn., hoping for a glimpse of the bride and groom, who were united in a simple ceremony. (AP)
CUTE COUPLE…Florence Trumbull and John Coolidge during their engagement, 1928. (

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Modest Mussolini

We go from famous faces to infamous ones, namely the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, aka Il Duce, who received the adoration of his public while trying to remain inconspicuous at the cinema. “Talk” recounted…

NOW PICTURE HIM UPSIDE DOWN…A 1929 postcard image of the once-revered Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Sixteen years later he would be shot by his own people and strung up by his feet from the roof of a Milan gas station. (

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Going Down

“Talk” also commented on the growing trend for high-rise apartments to provide swimming pools and other amenities below street level:

TAKING THE PLUNGE DOWN UNDER…Few indoor swimming pools were available to New Yorkers during the 1920s. Two of the nicer ones were found underground at the Shelton Hotel (above) and the Park Central. Sadly, both pools no longer exist. In 2007 the Shelton’s pool was removed and the cavernous space was divided into three levels. I’m not sure when Park Central’s disappeared, but it’s fate was doubtless similar to the Shelton’s.(

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How About a Catch?

As I’ve noted on previous occasions, the New Yorker of the 1920s all but ignored major league baseball. The magazine gave regular coverage to seemingly every sport, from hockey and college football to polo and yacht racing, but regular coverage of baseball was nonexistent, even when the Yankee’s Murderers’ Row (Ruth, Gehrig among others) won back-to-back World Series titles in 1927-28.

Still no coverage in the Oct. 5 issue, but the sport did get a brief mention in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column…

…and the issue was filled with baseball imagery, including the cover…

The Oct. 5 issue was filled with baseball-related items, but no actual coverage of the games. Images from the issue included, from left, the cover by Theodore Haupt; a filler sketch by Constantin Alajalov; and a Johan Bull illustration of umpire Bill Klem for the issue’s “Profile” section.

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In a Sentimental Mood

Robert Benchley checked out George White’s latest version of his Scandals revue at the Apollo Theatre, and found the sometimes risqué show to be in a sentimental mood…

BETTER SENTIMENTAL THAN DEPRESSED…The chanteuse Frances Williams (pictured on the show’s sheet music and at right) likely provided the only spark to the 1929 edition of George White’s Scandals. (amazon/

Benchley also looked in on Elmer Rice’s latest, See Naples and Die, featuring veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert

VETERAN AND ROOKIE…Veteran English actress Beatrice Herford and the up-and-coming Claudette Colbert headlined Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die. Colbert (pictured at right in a 1928 Broadway publicity photo) would go on to massive stardom in the 1930s. (Alchetron/Wikipeda)

Benchley applauded the veteran Herford’s performance, but found the otherwise reliable Colbert miscast as a wisecracking, Dorothy Parker type (Benchley, as we know, was close friends with Parker, so he knew what he was talking about)…

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An (Ugly) American in Paris

Off to Paris, we find correspondent Janet Flanner joining with Parisians in deriding the behavior of American tourists, who were on a course to drain every last drop from the ÎledeFrance before departing for the bone-dry USA:

DRINKING IN THE SIGHTS…American tourists at a Parisian café, circa 1920s. (

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Party Pooper

With her infant child (Patricia Arno) at home, it is doubtful Lois Long was seeing as much nightlife as she did during her first weeks at the New Yorker, when “nights were bold.” And indeed, her nightlife column “Tables for Two” would end for good in June 1930. Her Oct. 5 column took a cursory spin through the various nighttime offerings, ending on this note regarding a fan letter and a message from comedian Jimmy Durante:

THE GREAT SCHNOZZOLA Jimmy Durante brought a smile to the face of Lois “Lipstick” Long. 

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From Our Advertisers

With the latest Paris fashions splattered across newstands all over Manhattan, retailers scrambled to get “replicas” to consumers…Macy’s had “couturier bags”…

…the Hollander Dressmaking Department was ready to make a perfect copy of Patou’s “Quiproquo”…

…and this Chanel frock could be had in misses’ sizes for $145 (roughly equivalent to about $2K today)…

…Philip Morris hadn’t yet discovered the “Marlboro Man,” and were still hawking their cigarettes through a “distinguished handwriting contest.” The latest winner was Edmund Froese

…who would go on to become a popular mid-century landscape painter…

Port of New York, by Edmund Froese (undated)

…another artist in the midst of our ads is Carl “Eric” Erickson, who created these lovely images for R.J. Reynolds that would induce people to take up the habit with a Camel…

…and then we have some rather unlovely ads from the back pages, including these two that would not go over well with today’s readers…

…or this from Dr. Seuss, still sharpening his skills with Flit insecticide…

…or this ad from Abercrombie & Fitch, wrong on so many levels…

…on to happier things, here’s an illustration by Reginald Marsh that ran along the bottom of “Talk of the Town”…(click to enlarge)

Alan Dunn found love in the air above the streets of Manhattan…

…and Leonard Dove revealed the hazards of apartment rentals…

Next Time: Race to the Sky…

Two Years Young

The New Yorker celebrated its 2nd anniversary by once again using the Rea Irvin cover from its first issue, which depicted a dandified character–soon to be dubbed “Eustace Tilley”–that would become a mascot of sorts for the magazine.

February 19, 1927: 2nd anniversary issue cover by Rea Irvin.

For more than 90 years it has been a tradition to feature the original cover every year on the issue closest to the anniversary date of February 21, although on several occasions a newly drawn variation has been substituted, including several “alternative” covers for last year’s 90th anniversary issue. This one in particular, by Carter Goodrich, is appropriate for our times:


The magazine included this embellishment on the opening page of “The Talk of the Town” (also repeated from the previous year)…

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…and the editors opened with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek boast of the young magazine’s improving fortunes:

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The boasts about advertising were legitimate. Apparently the people at Rolls Royce felt that the magazine was worth a full-page, weekly advertisement. Note the third paragraph of the ad, third to to the last line: How many car makers today, or any at time for that matter, would tout that their car “meets every traveling situation blandly?”

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While on the topic of ads, this one from the back pages caught my eye:

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Most of us have heard of vaudeville teams like the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, but there were many others who drew big audiences but are mostly forgotten today, including the trio of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.

Jimmy Durante (center) performing with his vaudeville partners Eddie Jackson (right) and Lou Clayton. (New York Public Library)

Of the three, Jimmy Durante would go on to the greatest fame. Known for his gravelly voice, clever wordplay and his prominent nose (which he dubbed “the Schnozzola”), Durante would find great success in radio, film, and in early television. The singer, pianist and comedian would appear on many variety shows in the 1950s and 60s. Although he died in 1980, today he is still known to audiences young and old alike thanks to his appearance as the narrator in the animated Frosty the Snowman (1969), which is still broadcast every year during the Christmas season and is distributed through countless tapes and DVDs.

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GOOD NIGHT, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…the animated Jimmy Durante in Frosty the Snowman (1969), and in a 1964 publicity photo. (YouTube/Wikipedia)

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On to more advertising, and less savory topic. Beginning in the 1920s, Lysol was advertised for use in feminine hygiene as a guard against “odors,” a term that was widely understood as a euphemism for contraception. According to Andrea Tone (Devices and Desires) by 1940 it had become the most popular birth control method in the country. Unfortunately for many women, Lysol contained cresol (derived from coal tar) which could cause severe inflammation and even death:

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Also popular (and a lot less harmful) in the 1920s was sheet music featuring the latest songs. So sidle up to the piano with your guy or gal and belt out one of these favorites:

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And to close, a cartoon by the famed Peter Arno, who was well-acquained with New York nightlife:

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Next Time: Clark’s Folly…