Babylon Berlin

The name of this post comes from one of my favorite television series, Babylon Berlin, a lavishly produced German neo-noir drama that takes place during the final years of the Weimar Republic, or precisely where we are in the timeline of this blog.

Jan. 9, 1932 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The tumultuous Weimar years of the 1920s and early 30s represented Germany’s initial flirtation with democracy, an experimental age at once filled with post-war  angst and libertine ways, and this was especially true in Berlin where nearly every vice could be plied along its streets and alleyways and in countless clubs and cabarets. It was the setting for a decade of political turmoil, with communists   (rival Bolsheviks and Trotskyites) to the left and national socialists (later Nazis) to the right, and in the middle a fledging democracy that ultimately could not hold the center. Janet Flanner, the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, paid Berlin a visit just one year before Adolph Hitler would seize dictatorial power.

WORLDLY VIEW…Janet Flanner’s account of life in Berlin at the end of 1931 told of economic hardship and hinted at trouble to come, but it mostly depicted life as pictured at right at a Berlin tea dance. This was not a naive perspective, but rather one of a worldly mind not easily shocked by vice and upheaval. As the New Yorker’s longtime Paris correspondent, Flanner’s weekly letters during World War II would also make her a respected war correspondent. At left is an oft-reproduced portrait of Flanner, taken by Berenice Abbott in 1927. At right, a tea dance in the garden of the Hotel Esplanade in Berlin, 1928. (Clark Art Institute/ Süddeutsche Zeitung)

In this excerpt, Flanner saw life continuing at an oddly normal pace despite the hardships and the political tension that boiled behind the façade:

TRUNCATED VISION…Berlin looked to a Modernist future until Adolph Hitler put an end to the “un-German” Bauhaus style in 1933. Despite the economic collapse and political turmoil of 1931 Berlin, the city showcased remarkable technical progress, including a prototype high-speed train (left) that travelled at 230 km per hour (143 mph) from Hamburg to Berlin. At right, Berlin exhibition of Bauhaus-inspired buildings at the 1931 Deutsche Bauausstellung. The cavernous Hall 11, themed as “The Dwelling of Our Time,” was directed by Mies van der Rohe. It mostly displayed the output of his Bauhaus “Werkbund,” including a Mies-designed modern house. (Pinterest/Reichstarifvertrag)
THE OTHER BERLIN…at top, the Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’s “street of sin,” in the late 1920s; below right, prostitutes ply their trade in 1920s Berlin; and below left, buy cocaine capsules from a Berlin drug dealer, 1930. (ddr-postkarten-museum.de/Reddit/Wikipedia)
ANYTHING GOES…Clockwise, from top left, cabaret performance in Berlin that left little to the imagination; the Jockey bar mentioned by Flanner — it was frequented by A-listers such as Jean Cocteau, Andre Gide, Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich; the Eldorado gay night club in Berlin, 1932; performance of “A Slide on the Razor” at Berlin’s Haller Revue, 1923; the Europahaus, one of hundreds of cabarets in Weimar Berlin, 1931. (cabaret.berlin/Bundesarchiv/tribe.net/Wikipedia)

Toward the end of her article, Flanner noted that “Berliners are busy making a new race,” which is not a reference to Hitler’s “master race” (that would come later) but rather to a new generation overtaking the old. The final lines of this excerpt, however, suggest there might be trouble ahead…

NOT ALL FUN  AND GAMES: Weimer Berlin was also a place of political and economic struggle that at times turned violent. From left, a Nazi youth is wounded during Berlin street violence amid Reichstag elections in 1932; a Berlin bank damaged during violent clashes between police and demonstrators in June 1931; Communist youths in Berlin demonstrate on May Day 1931.  (Pinterest/Financial Times)

The party abruptly ended with Hitler’s takeover of the government in January 1933. The images below said it all:

NEW THEME, NEW OWNERSHIP…The Eldorado gay night club in Berlin before and after Nazi takeover of the German government. (lonesomereader.com)

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Masses’ Mass Media 

“The Talk of the Town” pondered the symbolism of the Daily News Building — from the inscription above its entrance to the place names on its massive lobby globe — which seemed to celebrate its readership, namely the common people.

CAN YOU FIND HOOTERVILLE?…the massive globe in the Daily News lobby (circa 1941), featured the names of small towns and cities along with major population centers; below, inscription “HE MADE SO MANY OF THEM” above the building’s entrance (atlasobscura.com)

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Dem Bones

The New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton paid a visit to the Stieglitz Gallery to check out the latest works by Georgia O’Keeffe. He found that her themes were moving from the urban landscape of New York to the bleached simplicity of the Southwestern desert:

CHANGING HER TUNE…Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931); O’Keeffe with one of her skull paintings, 1931. (metmuseum.org/Everett/CSU Archives)

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Hyde-bound

Film critic John Mosher found much to like about Frederic March’s performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and so did critics and Academy voters who bestowed a Best Actor award on the actor.

HEY, WE’RE PRE-CODE HERE…Bar singer Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins) in a state of undress as she tries (unsuccessfully) to seduce Dr. Jekyll (Frederic March); when Jekyll turns into Mr. Hyde, however, the tables are turned, much to Ivy’s distress. (IMDB)

Mosher found, however, that other pictures playing at the time left much to be desired…

BAD GIRLS…From left, Sylvia Sidney, Miriam Goldina and Esther Howard in 1931’s Ladies of the Big House. (IMDB)

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Modern Methods

Early in his writing career Richard Lockridge penned a series of comic sketches for the New Yorker, many of them featuring the characters Mr. and Mrs. North, who would inspire a 26-book series of detective novels. The Norths had yet to make an appearance, but here Lockridge had some fun with the makers of Chevrolets, who used a new-fangled method to promote their product. Excerpts:

 

FREEBIE…Richard Lockridge thanked the folks from Chevrolet for the free phonograph record, but passed on the automobile. (Ebay)

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From Our Advertisers

The Annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace kicked off the new year with a stunning lineup of new cars, but General Motors separated itself from the pack by exhibiting its wares at the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel…I believe this unsigned illustration is by Peter Arno (note “Walrus” in background) but someone please correct me if I am wrong…

…the New Yorker’s advertising department reaped the benefits of the annual show, the Jan. 9 issue replete with ads from various companies…the makers of the Buffalo-based Pierce Arrow — a top-of-the-line luxury car — added a downscale version with a “New Eight” and deeply discounted their prices (which were still well above economy models offered by others)…

…the Depression would put an end to Pierce Arrow by 1938, but rival Lincoln would manage to hang on thanks to their own new “8” and the largess of parent Ford Motor Company…the Lincolns shown here are actually priced higher than the Pierce Arrows, $4300 for the 12 (vs $3185 for the PA 12) and $2900 for the 8 (vs. $2385 for the PA 8)…

…a bit more down the ladder we have venerable Oldsmobile, alas no longer with us (removed from GM’s lineup in 2014)…

…and a few more rungs down we have the DeSoto (a Chrysler product) and its “sleek” new radiator that was the talk of the auto show, and admired here by “Jimmy Flagg” (aka illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, perhaps best known for his 1917 Uncle Sam poster with the caption “I Want YOU for U.S. Army”)…the DeSoto was a real bargain, priced at under $700…

…and here are a few ads from companies long gone…like Pierce Arrow, Auburn (top left) struggled to sell its upscale cars during the Depression…however, the makers of another upscale brand, Packard (bottom right), were able to survive by favoring tried and true designs over gimmicky yearly changes…Hupmobile (top right) was known for its innovations, but a decision to build more expensive cars in the late 1920s put it into a bad position for the Depression-era market, and the company folded by 1939…when Hupmobile was on its last leg, it partnered with the ailing Graham-Paige Motor Company (bottom left), another company known for great designs, but combining two failing companies in this case yielded one larger failing company, and Hup and Graham went down together…

…the clever folks at Buick were way ahead of the others in marketing savvy, emphasizing an attractive, confident woman at the wheel of an unseen car, tapping into a previously untapped market (tobacco companies were busy doing the same)…

…as we see here from the folks who pushed the Chesterfield brand — in this ad aimed at the growing market of women smokers, you don’t see the carton, but what you do see are people waxing philosophical about smoking, quality smoking, that is, and it’s no mistake that the woman is sitting on the arm of the chair, receiving this “wisdom” from her husband…

…even when a man isn’t present, Chesterfield still perched the woman on the arm of the chair, as seen in this ponderous New Yorker ad from the previous year…

…and then you have Spud — the direct approach — yes dammit, do something, man!…your “mouth happiness” is at stake, so follow a schedule that keeps you puffing every waking minute…

…and we move on to the fashion world, where this new-fangled “Talon Slide Fastener” is keeping women’s corsets zipped up, except the vulgar, slang word “zipper”  hasn’t quite made it into the fashion lexicon as of 1932…

…and this other new invention — “Rayon” — is “becoming important to women who watch and are watched in classic correctness,” but believe me, no old money deb would ever allow anything artificial to touch her delicate hide…

…we continue into the cartoons in the fashion mode with one of Helen Hokinson’s “girls” getting a makeover…

Mary Petty, on the other hand, is keeping an eye on the younger crowd…

…we move on to Barbara Shermund and the old money gang, wary of astrologer Evangeline Adams‘ thoughts on the ailing stock market…

…one of their fellows was having troubles of his own in those troubled times, per William Steig

…and Denys Wortman took us to the other side of that window, and the dreams of a better life…

…urban realist Reginald Marsh gave us all a splash of cold water…

I. Klein, on the other hand, presented a domestic scene with particular relevance these days…

…and another domestic scene from the brilliant James Thurber, in which the pistol once again makes a timely appearance…

Next Time: Dream Cars…

Thurber’s Dogs

James Thurber became acquainted with all sorts of dogs throughout his life, and in each he found something to admire. Unlike the men and women who were bound up by silly customs or norms, the dog stood steadfast as a “sound creature in a crazy world.”

Jan. 2, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

In the Jan. 2, 1932 issue, Thurber began what would become a decades-long paean to the noble canine — an embodiment of the freedoms conventional man would never attain. An excerpt from “A Preface to Dogs”…

“So why dogs?” Adam Gopnik asked the question under the title, “A Note on Thurber’s Dogs,” in Nov. 1, 2012 issue of the New Yorker. Gopnik explains that for Thurber, the dog represented “the American man in his natural state—a state that, as Thurber saw it, was largely scared out of him by the American woman. When Thurber was writing about dogs, he was writing about men. The virtues that seemed inherent in dogs — peacefulness, courage, and stoical indifference to circumstance — were ones that he felt had been lost by their owners.”

STOICAL INDIFFERENCE…Clockwise, from top left, James Thurber’s illustration of a childhood pet, a terrier named “Muggs” from the story “The Dog That Bit People” (1933); photograph of the real Muggs; dogs appear in many of Thurber’s cartoons as a stoic presence among maladjusted humans; Thurber at work on one of his dogs in an undated photo. (ohiomemory.org/jamesthurber.org)

Here’s one more excerpt that gives us glimpse into a dog’s day, as related by Thurber…

We’ve seen Thurber writing about dogs before, most notably in his spoof on newspaper pet columns titled “Our Pet Department.” Here is an excerpt from his first installment in the series, which appeared in fifth anniversary issue of the New Yorker, Feb. 22, 1930:

A final note: For more on Thurber, check out New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Thurber Thursday entries at his terrific Ink Spill website.

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Choo Choo

While Thurber’s mind was on dogs, his buddy E.B. White was musing about the joys of train travel, and the hope that awaited journey’s end. Excerpts:

THIS DOESN’T SUCK AT ALL…Riding on the Great Northern Railroad in 1926. (Pinterest)

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Party Poopers

Journalist Chester T. Crowell contributed the Jan. 2 “A Reporter at Large” column by looking through the thin facade of Prohibition enforcement in New York. He tells of Prohibition agents who visit a roadside tavern for several weeks (and enjoy the beer) before finally raiding the place. Beer kegs are broken up and the door to the bar is padlocked. But all was not lost for the proprietor, who got some business advice from the raiding agents…

KEG PARTY…The New York Daily News featured this photo on June 18, 1931 with this caption: “Tears mingled with strong beer in Newark, N.J. as prohibition agents destroyed the unlawful liquor, some of which was seized in Hoboken raid.” (NY Daily News/Mashable)

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No Laughing Matter

As we move through the 1930s we’ll see more signs of the world (war) to come. Reed Johnston had some fun with the messy politics of Weimar Germany, making a parenthetical reference to the “Nazis” of the National Socialist party who would soon take control of the country…

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Upstaged

A box office and critical success, Hell Divers is considered Clark Gable’s breakout role, but the real stars were the Curtiss F8C-4 “Helldivers” that were used in filming aerial battle scenes. Critic John Mosher takes it from there…

ART IMITATES LIFE…Wallace Beery and Clark Gable played rivals onscreen and offscreen in Hell Divers. The upstart Gable disliked the veteran actor Beery, a well-known misanthrope whom many actors found difficult to work with. (IMDB)

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Yet More Diego

Art critic Murdock Pemberton had more to say about Diego Rivera’s appearance at the Museum of Modern Art, noting that Rivera “has been fortunate to be living in a liberal country (Mexico), where his propaganda could be spread upon the walls of public buildings.” Pemberton correctly surmised that Rivera would “starve” if he tried to paint similar themes in the U.S. (Indeed, in 1933 Rivera would refuse to remove an image of Lenin from a Rockefeller Center mural, and would be asked to leave the country).

I SHALL RETURN…Diego Rivera returned to New York in 1933 on a commission to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. The inclusion of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin (inset) in the work was not well-received in the Capital of Capitalism. (npr.org/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

It’s snowing in Manhattan, and you’re tired of slogging though the snow and slush — well, if you didn’t lose your shirt in the stock market, and if you didn’t need to work a steady job, then you could get away from it all and head to the “sunlit paradise” of the West Indies…

…or grab some sun time in Nassau…

…but before you go, you might want to pick up some warm-weather duds at Lord & Taylor…

…or at L.P. Hollander on East 57th…

…to ring in the New Year (yes, I’m running a little late) we kick off the cartoons with William Crawford Galbraith

Gardner Rea showed us how old money and no money don’t mix…

Helen Hokinson gave us a double entendre to go along with car trouble at a service station…

…communication also seemed to be a challenge for this chap in a William Steig cartoon…

…and we end where we began, with the great James Thurber and the looming battle between the sexes…

Next Time: Babylon Berlin…

The Mouse That Roared

In the spring of 1928, Walt Disney collaborated with cartoonist Ub Iwerks in creating a new cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, and later that year Mickey would be featured in the first-ever post-produced sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. The film was an immediate hit, bringing almost instant fame to Disney.

Dec. 19, 1931…A classic cover by Peter Arno.

Just three years after the birth of Mickey, Disney had already carved a place for himself in American culture, drawing the attention of millions of Mickey fans —  and one critic for the New Yorker — Gilbert Seldes, who penned a “Profile” of the “Mickey-Mouse Maker” (illustration by Hugo Gellert). Note in the second of these two excerpts how Disney was already connecting his product to patriotism and clean living through his Mickey Mouse Clubs:

CASH COW…ER…MOUSE…Left, Walt Disney poses with his famous creation in 1935; top right, the Disney family in 1915: Parents Elias and Flora Disney in back row, right; Walt is seated with sister Ruth in front; photo of Disney proves the merchandising value of his little mouse from the very start.
A THING OF NIGHTMARES…Before the television show there was a theater-based Mickey Mouse Club. Pictured above is an early meeting of the Club at a theater in Ocean Park, California. Although the Club had 1 million members in the U.S. by 1932, Disney pulled the plug on the clubs in 1935. They were revived through several television series in 1955-59, 1977-79, and 1989-1994 (that last class featured a number of future stars including Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. (www.vintag.es)

In his conclusion, Seldes marveled at Disney’s productivity — a new picture made every two weeks — and his seemingly endless creativity. Little could Seldes imagine that one day the man and his mouse would become a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.

I’M YOUR VEHICLE, BABY…Mickey gives Minnie a ride in his cab in 1931’s Traffic Troubles.

You can watch 1931’s Traffic Troubles here:

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Big Man on Canvas

It seems the earth almost shook when Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in New York for only the second one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work habits, his comings and goings, and his enormous size (modest by today’s standards) were reported in the New Yorker, including this entry in “The Talk of the Town”…

COME TO MOMA…Cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog for the Diego Rivera exhibition.
MAN AT WORK…Left, Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1931. Rivera painted five frescoes on portable supports of steel-braced cement in conjunction with his MoMA exhibition. Among the works featured was The Rivals (right), which sold for $9.76 million in 2018, overtaking an auction record for Latin American art previously set by his wife, Frida Kahlo. Her Two Nudes in the Forest sold for $8 million in 2016. (MoMA/Pinterest)

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Winds of War

It’s the end of 1931, but one can already detect the rumblings of the future to come, namely world war. The former Allied and Axis powers of the First World War were all busy developing new weapons, particularly of the airborne variety that all believed would provide a decisive edge if (or rather when) the next war commenced. Japan was already making moves on China, and in just four years the Germans would reoccupy the Saarland and Italy would invade Ethiopia. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” found the current state of affairs more than a bit troubling…

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE…Wars and rumors of wars drove rapid advances in aviation in the 28 years following the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company developed the A-8 (above) in 1930-31 to serve as a ground-attack aircraft. (ww2aircraft.net)

…and hints of the world to come could also be found in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column, where he made this observation:

Brubaker was likely referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cautious approach to announcing his candidacy for president. The outcome, of course, proved quite different for the German people.

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From Our Advertisers

Preparations for war drove the development of the aircraft industry, which quickly adapted its designs during peacetime for civilian purposes. This ad from United Airlines touted the advantages of plane over train travel for corporate executives. Within 30 years the airlines would indeed supplant railroads as the preferred means for business travel…

…Prohibition would remain in force until the end of 1933, so brewers like Anheuser-Busch continued finding ways to link their non-alcoholic products to the ghosts of drinking past…

…on to our cartoons, James Thurber rendered this apt portrait of our civilization…

Barbara Shermund gave us an actress with a reputation to protect…

…and Garrett Price presented an unlikely harmonica player…

…on to our next issue, where we find more Diego Rivera

Dec. 26, 1931 cover by Madeline S. Pereny. Artist’s note: Pereny (1893–1970) was born in Kecskemet, Hungary. A baroness, she studied at Vienna Art Academy before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1930’s. In addition to creating cover art and illustrations for The New Yorker, she was also a cartoonist for the Disney Studios.

…and we begin with this entry from “The Talk of the Town,” attributed to James Thurber

WHERE’S DIEGO?…in December 1931 he could be found working on his frescoes on the sixth floor of the Heckscher Building — the Museum of Modern Art’s first home. In the foreground is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, demolished in 1926. (Library of Congress)
GET THE POINT?…Thurber referred to Diego Rivera’s Indian Warrior, one of five frescoes Rivera created during his Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

Thurber refers to “a lady” who accompanied Rivera, most likely Frida Kahlo, who was emerging as an artist in her own right around this time.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY…Wedding photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1929. (Throckmorton Fine Art)

More on Diego could be found in the art review section, where critic Murdock Pemberton offered a cautionary message to the rabble who might not abide some of the artist’s controversial themes:

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Head Cracker

In the 1920s and 30s Johnny Broderick was known as New York’s toughest cop, known for personally assaulting gangsters (and suspects) and for once facing down armed gunmen during a prison break at the Tombs. His valor won him many fans (and some detractors), making him a local celebrity and a subject of gossip columns. Reporter Joel Sayre offered his assessment of Broderick in a “Profile” for the Dec. 26 issue (illustration by Abe Birnbaum). Excerpts:

WISE GUY, EH?…Johnny Broderick (see arrow) escorts an unfortunate perp in 1927. (Public Domain)

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Something to Cheer About

On the lighter side, Hollywood took a shot at Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. The original play featured Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, while the Hollywood version Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.  For once, critic John Mosher actually liked this screen adaptation:

GIVE ME THAT LOVIN’ FEELING…Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery in the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. (TCM)

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From Our Advertisers

Just one ad from the Dec. 26 issue to close out the year, and what better way to say “Merry Christmas” than with a fresh cigarette…

…on to our cartoonists, William Crawford Galbraith offered a look backstage in this two-page illustration across the bottom of “The Talk of the Town”…

Richard Decker showed us the importance of making oneself clear, especially when aloft in a dirigible…

Robert Day found humor in a barren landscape…

Garrett Price offered us a cheesy predicament…

Helen Hokinson found a man about to make an important point…

…and we end 1931 with this classic from James Thurber

Next Time: Thurber’s Dogs…

Mosher’s Monster

James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, not only setting a standard for monster movies to come, but creating one of popular culture’s most enduring characters.

Dec. 12, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

The New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall called the film “far and away the most effective thing of its kind,” and the public agreed, making it a box office success. The New Yorker’s John Mosher, on the other hand, was among the crowd with a more literary bent, preferring Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel by the same name to the film adaptation. He dismissed Whale’s Frankenstein with this brief review:

THIS WON’T HURT A BIT…Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) prepares to destroy Henry Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff), but he is stopped short of his goal when the monster awakens and strangles him to death. (IMDB)
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED…Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) meets up with his creation in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
I WISH HENRY WOULD FIND A NEW HOBBY…Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke) is confronted by the monster (Boris Karloff) in 1931’s Frankenstein. (IMDB)
ALL IN A DAY’S WORK…Boris Karloff takes a break between scenes. (mashable.com)

One thing Mosher did like about the film was the makeup applied to Karloff, and it would be a look that endures today throughout popular culture. Less than two years after the 1931 film’s release, Walt Disney featured the monster in 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier, and since then in countless cartoons, dozens of films, and a television series. From what I can gather, comic portrayals of the monster are far more common than ones involving horror themes…

THE BAT PACK…Clockwise, from top left, 1933’s Mickey’s Gala Premier featured Frankenstein’s monster with pals Dracula and the Werewolf; Daffy Duck conducts an interview in 1988’s The Night of the Living Duck; the monster makes an expected appearance in the first season of Scooby-Doo (A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts 1969); and the monster has appeared as a regular in four Hotel Transylvania films. (Wikipedia/Pinterest)
A FAMILIAR FACE…Frankenstein’s monster has also appeared in dozens of films, a TV sitcom, and even on a box of cereal. Clockwise, from top left, Fred Gwynne as Herman Munster in NBC TV’s The Munsters (1964-66); Boris Karloff’s original monster makes an appearance on a FrankenBerry cereal box (1987); Peter Boyle as the monster with a different look (but retaining those electrodes) in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974); and Abbott & Costello team up with the monster (Glenn Strange) in 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. (Wikipedia/Pinterest/filmforum.org)

It seems I’ve gone down a rabbit hole with this subject, but here’s one more for the holidays: the late Phil Hartman portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in several SNL sketches during the 1988-89 season…

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No Fantasy Island, This

New York’s Blackwell’s Island is probably best known for the asylum where reporter Nellie Bly went undercover in 1887 to expose its horrid conditions. The asylum closed in 1894, but a penitentiary established there in 1832 remained in operation for more than a century. When journalist Robert Littell (1896-1963) visited the island in 1931 for “A Reporter at Large” column, he found it was still occupied by workhouses and a penitentiary — a place where the city still sent it “undesirables.” Littell, a former associate editor of the New Republic and a drama critic for various New York newspapers, described the island’s gray, grim appearance and the “ugly old buildings, model 1858” that contained its sorry residents. An excerpt:

BY ANY OTHER NAME…Called “Minnehanonck” by the Lenape Tribe and “Varkens Eylandt” (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, this East River island was dubbed Blackwell’s Island during colonial times, and that was the dreaded name referred to by reformers who decried the horrifying conditions of its “Lunatic Asylum,” workhouses and penitentiary in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Renamed Welfare Island in 1922, its prison can be seen in a 1931 photo (top) and in an interior shot from the 1920s. In 1973 the island was renamed Roosevelt Island in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt and redeveloped with housing for more than 20,000 residents. (AP)

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Outshining the Sordid

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford also mentioned Welfare Island in the Dec. 12 issue, but only as a reference point to view the new Cornell Medical Centre, which he found “indisputedly exhilarating.” Note the final lines of this excerpt, and how Mumford took a not-so-subtle swipe at New York architecture firms.

Mumford wasn’t alone in his praise. According to a 1933 Architectural Forum article, hospital director Dr. G. Canby Robinson made this observation about the lobby: “the average person should walk through it without noticing it, but the cultured person should be arrested by its beauty.”

HIGH MASS…The hospital in 1954. (Sam Falk/The New York Times)
ABOVE AVERAGE…The main entrance in 1933. (Avery Architectural Library)

NO SHOW…Fr. Charles O’Donnell (left) refused to share the stage at a Knute Rockne Memorial with retired boxer Gene Tunney. (findagrave.com/Wikipedia)

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Silver Bells

A precursor to the New Yorker’s annual holiday poem, “Greetings Friends!” was this entry in the Dec. 12, 1931 issue, written by short-story writer and novelist James Reid Parker

New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin has noted an interesting relationship Parker had with cartoonist Helen Hokinson. You can read about it at his lively Ink Spill site.

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From Our Advertisers

We kick off our ads with another entry from Condossis cigarettes…these will continue to the end of the year and beyond, but I won’t run them all…

…I liked this Rex Cole ad because it placed its very architectural refrigerator in the midst of the city…

…as the company did in the physical realm…this Rex Cole showroom was in Queens…

…with the holidays in full swing, we see ads for the kiddies…

…and for the grown-ups, again exchanging Champagne bottles filled with scarves and socks rather than bubbly, thanks to Prohibition (which still had two years to go)…

…maybe a game could distract you from your forced sobriety, such as table-top bowling…note the drawing of J.P. Morgan, which looked very similar to Peter Arno’s Major…

…here’s an advertising ploy no longer used today (at least not overtly)…

…and on to our cartoons, beginning with Gardner Rea

…this odd little political cartoon was contributed by Otto Soglow, who vaguely anticipated trouble ahead in the international sphere…

…I remember seeing this familiar trope in old movies and 60s sitcoms…John Reehill gave us his rendition here…

…and we close with William Steig, and an after-hours close encounter…

Next Time: The Mouse That Roared…

 

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We first encountered critic Lewis Mumford in the June 30, 1931 issue of the New Yorker when he roundly excoriated plans for Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 issue once again found him in a surly mood, this time regarding the decorative arts and how they had been poorly displayed at the otherwise esteemed Metropolitan Museum.

Nov. 14, 1931 cover by B.H. Jackson.

To say that Mumford was displeased with the Met’s decorative arts exhibition would be an understatement:

BED, BATH AND BEYOND…Let’s just say Lewis Mumford probably needed a stiff drink after strolling through the Met’s latest displays of the decorative arts. (Library of Congress)
PAST IMPERFECT…Norman Bel Geddes was known for his theatrical, futuristic visions of streamlined everything, but the radio he exhibited at the Met was more Queen Victoria’s speed in Mumford’s view. (Pinterest)

Mumford pondered this sudden decline: was it the Depression, or just a streak of bad taste? And what could be done with the purveyors of bad taste, short of shooting them? Let’s read on…

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET…Mumford suggested that Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry in the late 1920’s had more vision than the Met’s 1931 offering. Above, living room furniture designed by Houbert et Petit exhibited in a showroom during the 1928 “International Exposition of Art in Industry” at Macy’s department store. (Library of Congress)
LESS THAN A PRETTY FACE?…The streamlined form of Norman Bel Geddes’ “House of Tomorrow” probably wowed a few readers of Ladies home Journal in April 1931, but critic Lewis Mumford was likely not among them, as he often criticized Bel Geddes for his theatricality at the expense of good taste and functionality (see first excerpt above). Mumford was especially critical of Bel Geddes’ glorification of the automobile and the highway at the expense of livable cities. (Pinterest)

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Peter, We Have Your Back

When your colleague has a play made from his book, and it closes after just seven performances, what can you say, especially if you are theater critic for the New Yorker? Well, here is what Robert Benchley did:

THAT’S SHOW BIZ…Here Goes The Bride, based on a Peter Arno book, closed after just seven performances. However, as a cartoonist, Arno was at the top of his game. (Britannica/Ebay)

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From Our Advertisers

Depression? Who needs it? If you had the means, and didn’t lose your shirt in the 1929 crash, you could get away from it all and book passage to the Bahamas, where you could drink legally, soak up some sun, and forget about those lengthening bread lines you occasionally glanced from the window of your town car…

…well, that bootleg gin was a mind eraser…

Helen Hokinson continued to offer her cartooning skills to the folks at Frigidaire…

…on to our cartoons, the George Washington Bridge drew the envy of some out-of-towners, as illustrated by Garrett Price

…nearly 90 years ago folks were almost as nuts about college football as they are now, except for Perry Barlow’s lone dowager, who would rather be sitting in her parlor with a cup of tea…

Gardner Rea explored the wonders of heredity…

Otto Soglow’s Little King employed a guard ready for any emergency…

Barbara Shermund gave us an artist with a god complex…

James Thurber continued to probe the nuances of the sexes…

Peter Arno sketched this two-page spread with the caption: J.G’s a card all right when he gets to New York

…and from the mouth of babes, we have these observations of the underworld from Chon Day

…and Denys Wortman

On to the Nov. 21 issue, which featured the last in a series of eleven covers Helen Hokinson contributed to the New Yorker in 1931. The covers featured one of Hokinson’s “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise, which began with the March 2 issue and ended on Nov. 21 with a stop at the customs office, and a nosy customs officer…

Nov. 21, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Bread & Circuses

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reported on a recent editorial in the Columbia Spectator, that university’s student newspaper, which took issue with the professionalization and “furtive hypocrisy” of college football (if only they could see us now). White observed:

In 1931, Columbia was a football power, and the Ivy League was a big-time conference. To the editors of the Spectator, this was not a point of pride, which they made clear in this 89-year-old editorial that could have been written yesterday:

Clippings from Columbia Spectator Archive
JUST GETTING MY KICKS…1931 press photo of Columbia University football star Ralph Hewitt, who still holds the school record for the longest field goal — a 53-yarder he dropped kicked in a 1930 upset victory over Cornell. Hewitt went on to coach high school sports.

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Sorry, Charlie

William “Billy” Haines was a popular actor during the 1920s and early 30s a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932, portraying arrogant but likable characters in a string of pictures that ended abruptly when Haines refused to deny his homosexuality and was cut loose by MGM. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Haines at his Santa Barbara home, where he entertained a mysterious visitor:

THE INTERIOR LIFE…The stylish actor William Haines in a 1926 publicity shot taken at his Hollywood home. Haines would abandon acting in the 1930s and take up a successful career as an interior designer. (Photofest)

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Coveted Coiffeur

Speaking of stylish, writer Bessie Breuer wrote an admiring profile of Polish hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski), considered the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. The opening paragraph:

A CUT ABOVE…In 1914 famed hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski) invented the “shingle cut” (at left, sported by actress Louise Brooks in the 1920s), which was all the rage during the Roaring Twenties. (Pinterest)

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The Look of Relief

In “The Talk of the Town” E.B. White noted that a familiar face was gracing advertisements for President Herbert Hoover’s Unemployment Relief Agency:

I NEVER FORGET A FACE…E.B. White referred to this ad featuring an unnamed woman who had a familiar look about her. (period paper.com)

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More His Style

We return again to Lewis Mumford, this time cheered by the sight of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, designed by Cory & Cory. An excerpt from “The Sky Line” column:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT…Lewis Mumford praised the striking effect of the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s alternating bands of brick, concrete and steel. (Atlas of Places)

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The Chump

John Mosher was neither moved nor charmed by the appearance of little Jackie Cooper in The Champ, a tearjerker story of an alcoholic ex-boxer (Wallace Beery) struggling to provide for his son. He did, however, appreciate the boy’s ability to carry “on his little shoulders a heavy and tedious and lengthy story.”

BUMMER…John Mosher had little to like about King Vidor’s The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Mosher was no doubt a bit dismayed when Beery received an Academy Award for his performance. (IMDB)

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A Wishful Christmas List

It was that time of the year when the New Yorker began running its lengthy features on possible gifts for Christmas. This excerpt caught my eye for what might have been possible in 1931 — buying a photographic print directly from Berenice Abbott or Nickolas Muray:

NO LUMP OF COAL, THIS…In 1931 it might have been quite possible to buy this print directly from photographer Berenice Abbott. Barclay Street, Hoboken Ferry 1931, is in MoMA’s photography collection.

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From Our Advertisers

It has been well-established in previous posts that Anglophilia ran rampant among New York’s smart set, and this advertisement from Saks provides everything we need to underscore the point…

…and the top hat mades another appearance in this spot for Lucky Strike, featuring an endorsement from actor Edmund Lowe...

…our cartoons featured a song-less songbird courtesy of Perry Barlow

…and from James Thurber, another creature with little appetite for song, let alone wine and women…

William Steig brought us back to the bleachers with another nonconformist…

Gluyas Williams gave us this sad sack all alone in the crowd…

Richard Decker sought to bring order to this court…

…and we end with Carl Rose, and this two-page cartoon illustrating a dicey parking challenge…

Next Time: Yankee Doodles…

 

Some Comic Relief

From the Upper East Side and the vaudeville stage to the shining lights of Hollywood went the Marx Brothers in 1931, starring in their first movie written especially for screen rather than adapted from one of their stage shows.

Oct. 17, 1931 cover by Adolph K. Kronengold.

Monkey Business also their first film to be shot outside of New York. The brothers’ first two pictures — The Cocoanuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) — were filmed at Paramount’s Astoria Studios in Queens. Film critic John Mosher found their latest movie to be a “particular prize” among the somewhat ordinary fare being cranked out of Hollywood. It featured the four as stowaways on an ocean liner bound for America, and that’s all you really need to know, because like most of their films it cut quickly to the chase…

Monkey Business was the first film to label the troupe the “Four Marx Brothers” (a billing that would continue through their Paramount years). A fifth brother, Gummo, left the team early and went on to launch a successful raincoat business.

NEVER A DULL MOMENT…The Marx Brothers were up to their usual antics in their first Hollywood-made film, Monkey Business. At top, Groucho performs an egg trick on a society couple; at bottom, he does a bit of hoofing with comedian Thelma Todd. (IMDB)

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Monkey’s Uncles

There was a New Yorker connection to Monkey BusinessS. J. Perelman‚ a frequent contributor of humorous shorts to the magazine, was one of the screenwriters for the film. And it just so happens that one of Perelman’s shorts was in the Oct. 17 issue, and it was a doozy…

MAKE ‘EM LAUGH…Writer and cartoonist Will B. Johnstone (left) wrote the screenplay for Monkey Business with S. J. Perelman, right, in a 1935 portrait by Ralph Steiner. (Meg Farrell/Yale University)
A promotional cartoon for Monkey Business by Will B. Johnstone. He also created the cartoon character of The Tax Payer wearing only a barrel held up by suspenders. It was a regular feature in the New York World-Telegram. (Meg Farrell via travsd.wordpress.com)
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Office Chatter
E.B. White called out a couple of his New Yorker colleagues in “Notes and Comment” as he mused about “lady poets” and their disillusionment with the menfolk. The “Selma Robinson” he mentions was a young writer who had just published her first collection of poems titled City Child

…White then moved on the subject of matrimony and advice columns, zeroing in on Dorothy Dix, the most widely read woman journalist of her time with an estimated 60 million readers turning daily to her syndicated column…

LIGHTEN UP ON THE LOVEBIRDS, DOROTHY, E.B. White seemed to suggest in his “Notes and Comment” item about syndicated advice columnist Dorothy Dix. (NYT)

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So Much for Prognosticators

The New Yorker ran an amusing two-page spread that contained the quotes of prominent writers, politicians, businessmen and economists — month by month since the October 1929 market crash — who predicted a swift end to the Depression and better times just around the corner. An except below (note the reprise of Otto Soglow’s manhole cartoon).

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It Pays to be Funny

Richard Lockridge (1898–1982) was a reporter for the New York Sun when he began submitting comic sketches to the New Yorker such the one excerpted below. Later sketches would include the characters Mr. and Mrs. North. In the late 1930s Lockridge would collaborate with his wife, Frances Louise Davis, on a detective novel, combining her plot with his Mr. and Mrs. North characters to launch a series of 26 novels that would be adapted for stage, film, radio and television.

PARTNERS IN CRIME…Richard and Frances Lockridge examine one of their mystery novels in this undated book jacket photo. At right, the cover of their second “North” book, with cover illustration by Helen Hokinson (note the similarities of the Mr. and Mrs. North characters to Richard and Frances).

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Land Barge

The “Motors” column featured the latest luxury offering from Germany, the massive 12-cylinder Maybach Zeppelin, which would set you back a cool $12,800 in 1931 (roughly $200,000 in today’s currency). Named for the company’s production of Zeppelin engines in the World War I era, the car weighed 6,600 pounds (3,000 kg).

THE 12-CYLINDER Maybach Zeppelin was not known for its economy.

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From Our Advertisers

The new Chevrolet Six was no Maybach, but the folks at GM nevertheless tried to suggest it was a car for the posh set…

…when Kleenex was first introduced to American consumers in 1924 it was marketed as a tissue for removing cold cream, and wasn’t sold as a disposable handkerchief until the 1930s…

…and contrary to the wisdom of the ages, the makers of Old Gold cigarettes tried to convince us that their cigarettes would not leave smokers with bad breath or yellowed teeth…

…Winnie-the-Pooh, or here referred to as “Winnie, The Pooh,” was only five years old when this ad was created for Macy’s, and even before Disney got his hands on him the bear was being turned into various consumer products including baby bowls, handkerchiefs and lamps…

…the color ads in the early New Yorker were quite striking, such as this full-pager for Martex towels…

…or this one for Arrow shirts, featuring a determined coach making an important point to his leatherheads before the big game…

…on to our cartoons, we have Otto Soglow’s Little King engaging in some sport of his own…

Alan Dunn showed us a meter reader who probably needed to come up for some fresh air…

William Crawford Galbraith gave us a sugar daddy without a clue…

E. McNerney showed us another pair that begged the question “what comes next?”…

…this Mary Petty cartoon recalls Carl Rose’s famous “I say its spinach” cartoon — and Mamma has every right to say “the hell with it” in this case…

…in this William Stieg entry, a father teaches his young charge the art of rubbernecking…

…and Don Herold gave us a peek at what the little dears really talk about while their parents exchange the latest gossip…

…on to the Oct. 24, 1931 issue…

Oct. 24, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…where we find the latest edition of Frank Sullivan’s satirical newspaper, The Blotz, which occupied a two-page spread (excerpt below)…

…and featured this masthead of sorts (with James Thurber art)…

…and another Thurber contribution as The Blotz’s political cartoonist…

…more colorful ads to enjoy, including this nighthawk view of an apartment house…

…and this ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, featuring 20-year-old Platinum Blonde star Jean Harlow (what is she leaning on?) who probably shouldn’t have smoked because her health was always a bit fragile — she would be dead in less than six years…

…ands then we have our latest high society shill for cold cream, Marchioness of Milford Haven, aka Nadejda Mikhailovna Mountbatten, aka Countess Nadejda de Torby, aka Princess George of Battenberg…she was probably best known for her part in the 1934 Gloria Vanderbilt custody trial, when a a former maid of Vanderbilt’s mother, Gloria Morgan, testified that the Marchioness had a lesbian relationship with Morgan…

Helen Hokinson continued loaning one of her “girls” to Frigidaire to extol the wonders of their seemingly indestructible refrigerators…

…our Oct. 24 cartoons feature Garrett Price, who brought us the exciting world of the traveling salesman…

A. S. Foster served up an Italian stereotype…

I. Klein, on the other hand, turned a stereotype on its head…

…and we end with Rea Irvin, who gave us what I believe was a first in the New Yorker — a cartoon character breaking the fourth wall…

…by the way, M.F.H. stands for Master of Fox Hounds…I had to look it up.

Next Time: Through a Glass Darkly…

Asphalt Jungle

The zoos of yesteryear were joyless places, that is, if you were one of the animals. Children squealed with fear and delight at the sight of a caged lion, and many an adult had fun tossing peanuts at elephants or teasing enraged gorillas locked behind bars; but if you were a zoo animal in 1931, life was endless hours of boredom, sprinkled with moments of terror and humiliation.

Aug. 15, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

It is instructive to look back 89 years and see how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, to see our fellow creatures as more than curiosities and amusements to be captured and gawked at, and to see their environments as something to be preserved, not only for their survival but for ours as well.

LIFE BEHIND BARS…Left, a zookeeper with chimps at the Central Park Zoo, 1936. Right, a rhino paces in a barred enclosure, 1937. (nycgovparks.org)

E.B. White paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and found it wanting in a number of respects:

Many zoos back then were more collections of curiosities than places where you could learn about various habitats. So when David Sarnoff, president of RCA, bagged a live opossum in the South, the critter was given a new home in an antelope enclosure, per this item in the Dec. 20, 1931 New York Times:

The Central Park Zoo was established in the 1860s as a “menagerie” behind the Arsenal, and by the turn of the century attracted millions of visitors to its displays of exotic animals.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL…Postcard image of the Menagerie in Central Park, New York, 1905. (Museum of the City of New York—MCNY)
ANIMAL ATTRACTION…Postcard image of folks enjoying caged birds at the Menagerie, 1905. (MCNY)
O GIVE ME A HOME…In the early days of zoos, animals were presented in cages and fenced enclosures with no hint as to what their natural habitat might look like. Clockwise, from top left, “Fatima” the hippo, image from an 1896 stereograph card; a 1911 photo of a trainer and a dog perched on top of a hapless elephant; a bull bison around the turn of the century; a group of people observe animals in cages at the Central Park Menagerie, 1895. (Library of Congress/nycgovparks.org/MCNY)

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He’s Your Future

The New Yorker featured two-part profile of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who unbeknownst to writer Milton MacKaye would soon become the next president of the United States. Two excerpts (not continuous)…

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From Our Advertisers

Ah yes, the first time I visited the Empire State Building’s observation deck (in the 1970s) a heavy smog enveloped the city (the air is much cleaner today). I like how the promoters spin disappointment into an opportunity — “The mysterious beauty of the city has a million constantly changing aspects”…

…if you were looking for bluer skies, Bermuda could have been an option if you had the means…

…or you could have stayed closer to home at a Long Island beach resort, as Helen Hokinson illustrated, and as we segue into our cartoons…

I. Klein gave us a very unscientific, albeit humorous view of genetics…

Richard Decker redefined the meaning of “volunteers”…

…and William Steig summoned the advice of Dorothy Dix, a forerunner of “Dear Abby” who was the most widely read female journalist of her time…

We move on to the Aug. 22, 1931 issue…

Aug. 22, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…in which James Thurber wrote about his experience with early television in “The Talk of the Town”…

NO CABLE BILL, YET…Charles Francis Jenkins demonstrates his “Radiovisor” console television in 1929. At right, the inner workings featured a rotating disc punctured with tiny holes, each projecting a line across the glass screen to compose an image. As Thurber noted, the pictures commonly were too dark for viewers to see anything more than silhouettes. (earlytelevision.org)

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The Other Moving Pictures

The movies still had nothing to fear from television in 1931, and Hollywood continued to draw large audiences to “Pre-Code” films that featured doses of sex and violence. Novelist Viña Delmar gained famed in 1928 with her suggestively titled book Bad Girl, so when it was adapted into a film, audiences came running — even if the screen adaptation proved to be a bit tamer than the novel that inspired it. Critic John Mosher observed:

I’M JUST A LITTLE BAD…Sally Eilers played the title character in Bad Girl with co-star James Dunn. The film won two Oscars in 1932 for Best Director (Frank Borzage) and Best Writing, Adaptation (Edwin J. Burke). (IMDB)

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Chic Chapeau

The Empress Eugénie hat was named for 19th century French empress Eugénie de Montijo, who was known as a fashion trendsetter. The hat was revived in 1930 after Greta Garbo was seen wearing a version of one in the popular film Romance. E.B. White was not exaggerating when he noted (in his “Notes and Comment”) that the jaunty hat was seen on “every other head” in the city.
 

LOOK WHAT YOU STARTED…Greta Garbo sported an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1930 film Romance, setting off a fashion craze that persisted through much of the decade. At right, Kemp Starrett referenced the trend in this Aug. 8, 1931 cartoon in the New Yorker. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Speaking of trends, these “roughies” were all the rage among the young folks, in the dorms and on the beach…

…one trend I wasn’t aware still persisted in 1931 was a top hat and tails for an evening out among the smart set…

…according to this ad, if you were a “smart” and fashionable New Yorker, then you needed an “Inebriates” themed cocktail set…

…examples of the glassware for sale on Worthpoint…

Dr. Seuss was still busy selling pesticide with this four-panel ad…

…on to the cartoons, we start with James Thurber

…and Rea Irvin continued to experiment with various motifs, this time an Egyptian-themed cartoon referencing the “wine bricks” sold by enterprising vineyards during Prohibition…

Peter Arno found a big surprise during a mansion tour…

…and we end with Otto Soglow

…and Richard Decker…both cartoons reminded me of Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

…I grew up reading Mad magazine, and always looked forward to Jaffee’s fold-ins…he just retired from Mad at the young age of 99, so we conclude with one of his Snappy Answers panels from Mad #98, Oct. 1965…

Next Time: Unnatural History…

 

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.

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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)

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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)

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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…

Markey’s Road Trip

With the explosion of car ownership in the 1920s and 30s came improved highways across America, but if one were to undertake a long-distance journey, like the New Yorker’s Morris Markey, you were bound to find a wide range of conditions, from concrete highways to muddy dirt roads.

July 25, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea.

Markey wrote about his experience of driving from New York City to Atlanta for his “Reporter at Large” column, noting that stops at filling stations also offered opportunities to fill up on bootleg gin. Drunk driving, it seems, wasn’t a big concern in the early 1930s.

BLUE HIGHWAYS…Although the U.S. launched into major roadbuilding projects in the 1920s and 30s, rutted and muddy roads were still common in many areas of the country. Clockwise, from top left, Route 1 winds through Maryland in the 1920s; marker indicating the Mason and Dixon Line dividing Pennsylvania from Maryland, circa 1930; a 1930s dirt road in the Eastern U.S.; a policeman directs traffic in Richmond, Va., in the 1930s. (Library of Congress/fhwa.dot.gov/theshockoeexaminer.blogspot.com)
TIME TO GIN UP…James H. Brown (left), at the first of his four service stations in Richmond, Va., circa 1930. Some service stations offered Morris Markey bootleg gin during his journey to Atlanta. My use of this photo, however, does not imply that Mr. Brown offered the same service. (vintagerva.blogspot.com)

Unfortunately, Markey shared the sensibilities of many of his fellow Americans 89 years ago, and made this observation about drivers below the Mason and Dixon Line:

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Pale Riders

Since the mid-19th century Chelsea’s Tenth Avenue was known as “Death Avenue” due to the killing and maiming of hundreds who got in the way of freight trains that plowed through 10th and 11th Avenues in the service of warehouses and factories in the district. In the 1850s the freight line hired horsemen known as “West Side Cowboys” to warn wagons and pedestrians of oncoming trains, but even with this precaution nearly 450 people were killed by trains between 1852 and 1908, with almost 200 deaths occurring in the decade preceding 1908. Calls for an elevated railroad were finally answered with the opening of the High Line in 1934. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the last of these urban cowboys:

WESTSIDE COWBOYS…Clockwise, from top left, a steam locomotive rumbles down 11th Avenue in the 1920s; a West Side Cowboy William Connolly rides ahead of a train to warn pedestrians in 1932; George Hayde led the final ride of the West Side cowboys up 10th Avenue on March 24, 1941; aerial view of the High Line from 18th Street heading north. Opened in 1934, the High Line lifted most train traffic 30 feet above the street. Today it serves only pedestrians, and is one of New York’s biggest tourist draws. (Forgotten NY/AP/NY Times/thehighline.org)

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Guys and Dolls

“The Talk of the Town” had some fun with a little-known aspect of a notorious gangster’s life; namely, the doll-filled house belonging to Jack “Legs” Diamond:

DOLL HOUSE…This house on Route 23 near Cairo, New York, once sheltered gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, his wife, Alice, and her extensive collection of dolls and other knick-knacks. (nydailynews.com/Zillow)

“Talk” also made joking reference to the number of times Diamond had been shot and survived to tell about it.

Diamond’s luck would run out at the end of 1931 — Dec. 18, to be exact — when gunmen would break into his hotel room in Troy, NY, and put three bullets into his head.

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Ziggy’s Stardust

Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) had a knack for show business, launching the careers of many entertainers through his Ziegfeld Follies, which got its start in 1907 during vaudeville’s heyday. The advent of sound movies signaled the end of the vaudeville era and of Ziegfeld himself, who would stage one final Follies before his death in 1932. Gilbert Seldes penned a two-part profile of Ziegfeld under the title “Glorifier” (caricature by the great Abe Birnbaum). An excerpt:

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. It would prove to be his last Follies show. Revivals following his death in 1932 would prove to be much less successful. (Wall Street Journal)

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If Looks Could Kill

The New Yorker’s film critic John Mosher had a difficult time making sense of Murder by the Clock and its lead actress, Lilyan Tashman, who gave a tongue-in-cheek performance as the film’s femme fatale.

ARE YOU NUTS?…Irving Pichel and Lilyan Tashman in Murder by the Clock (1931). Tashman was known for her tongue-in-cheek portrayals of villainesses in films she made before her untimely death in 1934. (IMDB)

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Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

Open-air performances of classical music and opera were popular summertime diversions in the days before air-conditioning. In 1931 crowds gathered in Lewisohn Stadium to hear the New York Philharmonic perform under the direction of Willem van Hoogstraten, who conducted the Lewisohn summer concert series from 1922 to 1939. Here is a listing in the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section:

MUSIC IN THE AIR…Cover of the 1931 program for concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, College of the City of New York. Bottom right, signed photo of Willem van Hoogstraten from 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org/ebay.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Flo Ziegfeld’s 1931 Follies were lavish productions, but his advertising in the New Yorker was anything but as evidenced in this tiny ad that appeared at the bottom of page 52…

…no doubt anticipating the demise of Prohibition, the makers of Anheuser-Busch beverages ramped up the promotion of their non-alcoholic products to create associations with pre-Prohibition times…

…not to be outdone by the East Coast chocolates giant Schrafft’s, Whitman’s took out this full page ad to suggest how you might enjoy their product…

…which was in sharp contrast to the approach Schrafft’s took in this full-page ad featured in the April 25, 1931 New Yorker, which touted the health benefits of its candy…

…on to our cartoons, Richard Decker took us swimming with a middle-aged man who was anything but bored…

Barbara Shermund went en plein air with a couple of her ditzy debs…

Garrett Price also went to the country to find a bit of humor…

Helen Hokinson found a home away from home for a couple looking to take the sea air…

James Thurber continued to explore his brewing war between the sexes…

Harry Haenigsen gave us a novel approach to landing a trophy fish…

William Steig illustrated the wonders of the tailoring profession…

…and Alan Dunn aptly summed up the generation gap of the 1930s…

…on to the Aug. 1, 1931 issue…

August 1, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…”The Talk of the Town” mused about the advertising jingles made famous by the makers of Sapolio soap…

…Bret Harte actually did write jingles for the brand, once described by Time magazine as “probably the world’s best-advertised product” in its heyday. With a huge market share, Sapolio was so well known in the early 20th century that its owners decided they no longer needed to spend money on advertising. It was a poor decision, and by 1940 the product disappeared from the marketplace.

SEEING THE LIGHT OF DAY…A 19th century Sapolio sign on Broadway and Morris Street revealed after an adjoining building was demolished in 1930. (MCNY)
MONEY WELL SPENT…Sapolio ad from its heyday in the early 20th century. (Pinterest)

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Tough Love

As a charter member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, Heywood Broun was a friend to many of the founding writers and editors of the New Yorker. And so it must have been quite a task to review his play, Shoot the Works, which the New Yorker found wanting in a number of aspects. And because he was so close to Broun himself, Robert Benchley left the review writing to someone who signed the column “S. Finny.” I can’t find any record of an S. Finny at the New Yorker, and I don’t believe this is a Benchley pseudonym (he used “Guy Fawkes” in the New Yorker). At any rate, here is an excerpt:

SHOOT GETS SHOT…The New Yorker wasn’t crazy about Heywood Broun’s play, which ran for 87 performances at George M. Cohan’s Theatre. (Playbill)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of the “Flexo” ice cube tray continued to tout the wonders of their product with these Ripley-themed ads. This might appear rather mundane to modern eyes, but electric refrigerators with built-in freezers were still rather novel in 1931…

…another way to stay cool in the summer of 1931 was to take an excursion to the Northern climes…

…this ad for the New York American featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose early work strongly resembled that of Peter Arno’s

…on to our cartoons, we have the latest antics of the Little King courtesy Otto Soglow

William Steig added levity to a heavy moment…

Barbara Shermund found humor at an antiques shop…

...John Held Jr continued his revels into our “naughty” Victorian past…

…and we end with Garrett Price, and a look at the ways of the modern family…

Next Time: An American Classic…

 

 

 

 

A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

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Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

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Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

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Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

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Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

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And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…