The Bombshell

Much like Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s, Jean Harlow occupied a brief period in Hollywood history, but her star shone long after her untimely death.

Oct. 28, 1933 cover by Rea Irvin.

Adam Victor’s The Marilyn Encyclopedia draws all sorts of weird parallels between the actresses: both raised by strict Christian Scientists, both married three times, both left school at sixteen to marry their first husbands, both acted opposite Clark Gable in the last film each ever made. Most importantly, Monroe idolized Harlow, so it was no coincidence that she sported her own version of “platinum blonde” hair.

ART IMITATES LIFE…In 1958 Marilyn Monroe posed as Jean Harlow for photographer Richard Avedon in a Life magazine feature. (Flickr)

The term “Bombshell” was affixed to the 22-year-old Harlow after the 1933 film’s release, and was later used to describe Monroe and other sex symbols of the 1950s and early 60s.

Harlow’s character in Bombshell, Lola Burns, satirized the stardom years of the silent era sex symbol Clara Bow, who was director Victor Fleming’s fiancée in 1926. Although critical reviews were mostly positive, New Yorker critic John Mosher found the film “mossy with verbiage.”

TAKE A BOW, CLARA…Bombshell satirized the stardom years of silent era sex symbol Clara Bow, who was director Victor Fleming’s fiancée in 1926 (photo at left is of the couple on the set of 1926’s Mantrap); in Bombshell Jean Harlow portrayed a sex symbol who, like Bow, wanted to live a normal life. In real life, Bow made her last film in 1933 and retired to a ranch at age 28.
A STAR IS BORED…In Bombshell, movie star Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) dislikes her sexy vamp image and wants to live a normal life, but her studio publicist E. J. “Space” Hanlon (Lee Tracy) insists on feeding the press endless provocative stories about her. Clockwise, from top left: Lee Tracy and Louise Beavers in a scene with Harlow; Harlow and Una Merkel, who portrayed Lola’s assistant, Mac; Harlow in a scene with Mary Forbes, C. Aubrey Smith, and Franchot Tone; Harlow in a scene with Ruth Warren and Frank Morgan—the latter portrayed Lola’s pretentious, drunken father. (IMDB)

Harlow would die at age 26 on June 7, 1937. Her heavy drinking didn’t help, but neither did the misdiagnosis she received as her kidneys were rapidly failing. While filming Saratoga with Clark Gable, Harlow was stricken with what she believed was the flu, and her persistent stomach pain was misdiagnosed as a swollen gallbladder. Just two days before her death another doctor finally diagnosed her kidney disease, but in 1937 nothing could be done—kidney dialysis would not be available for another decade, and transplants would not be an option until the mid-1950s.

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Second City Sanctimony

The New Yorker rarely missed an opportunity to take a dig at the square-toed ways of the Second City and its flagship newspaper, the Tribune. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White (who enjoyed gin martinis) found the newspaper’s sanctimonious stance tedious:

The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, aka “A Century of Progress,” received scant attention from The New Yorker, unless it provided opportunities for parody. Musicologist Sigmund Spaeth (1885-1965), well-known in the 1930s and 40s for his NBC radio programs, offered this take on the Windy City’s exposition:

WONDERS NEVER CEASE…In addition to its more high-minded attractions, the Chicago World’s Fair also featured such sideshow attractions as Ripley’s Odditorium, which featured “The Fireproof Man” among other novelties. (

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Big, Bad Earworm

It seems quaint that nearly 90 years ago one of the most popular songs in America was “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” To Frank Sullivan, there was no escaping “that lilting tune”…

SIMPLER TIMES…”Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” was a huge hit during the second half of 1933. One of the most well-known Disney songs, it was covered by numerous artists and musical groups.

Sullivan concluded that a trip to Vladivostok might be the only way to escape the catchy melody…

Briefly jumping to the Nov. 4 issue, “The Talk of Town” took a closer look at the song and the 1933 Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon in which it was featured—Three Little Pigs. Written by Frank Churchill and Ann Ronell, the song launched a market for future Disney tunes, with Irving Berlin securing the sheet music rights over Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies. 

WE’RE IN THE MONEY…The 1933 Disney Silly Symphonies cartoon Three Little Pigs helped to launch the Disney juggernaut nearly 90 years ago.

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Le Corbusier, aka Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (1887–1965), was known as a pioneer of modern architecture and design in the early and mid-20th century, but as this review by Lewis Mumford suggested, he was also a talented modernist painter.

WAYS OF SEEING…Le Corbusier’s early paintings followed the ideas of something he called “purism”—at left is an example from 1920, Still Life. Later on his work become more abstract, including Menace, at right, from 1938. The horse head in the painting seems to reference Pablo Picasso’s 1937 painting, Guernica. (Wikipedia/Art Basel)

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Dear Papa

Following the high praise Ernest Hemingway received in 1926 for The Sun Also Rises, Dorothy Parker feared for the novelist’s next book: “You know how it is—as soon as they all start acclaiming a writer, that writer is just about to slip downward.” Seven years later Parker’s colleague Clifton Fadiman detected some slippage, finding Hemingway’s latest output a bit stale. Rather than pen a negative review, Fadiman shared his concerns by way of an open letter:

PHONING IT IN…Clifton Fadiman (right) found Ernest Hemingway’s Winner Take Nothing to be “stuck fast in yesterday.” (AP/Wikipedia/Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Until the 1920s all car bodies were framed in wood, preferably ash, but by the end of the 1930s all-steel car bodies became the standard…Packard made the switch beginning around 1938…

…ah, the good old days when you could smoke in the “rarefied atmosphere” of an airplane, the pilot so close by you could tap him on the shoulder…

…Brooklyn’s Hittleman-Goldenrod Brewery opened in late 1933 promising beer in the finest English tradition…sadly, it closed in 1937…

…the Waldorf-Astoria announced the re-opening of its Empire Room with entertainment by Xavier Cugat and his tango orchestra, featuring the dancer Margo…this was just the sort of “juvenile” entertainment Lois Long detested (see my previous post)…

…according to this ad, “His Lordship” drank a pot of decaf Sanka at midnight “and never winked an eye all night”…it doesn’t mention that he probably also wet the bed…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Peter Arno and the woes of the monied classes…

…on to Helen Hokinson, and the charms of the precocious…

Gardner Rea gave us a toff absorbed in historical fiction…

Alain (aka Daniel Brustlein) offered up a flautist who found beauty in his routine life…

…and we close with Perry Barlow, and motherhood among the smart set…

Next Time: Radio City…


MoMA Sees The Future

If you love modern architecture, then Feb. 10, 1932 should be an important date on your calendar, for on that date the Museum of Modern Art opened Modern Architecture: International Exhibition.

Feb. 27, 1932 cover by Leonard Dove.

Curated by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock, the exhibition introduced 33,000 visitors (during the exhibition’s six-week run) to the “International Style,” an emerging architectural style that would utterly transform New York and thousands of cities around the world after the Second World War. In a catalogue prepared for the exhibition, Johnson and Hitchcock defined what this style was all about:

Architecture critic Lewis Mumford welcomed the exhibition, wryly noting that the “best buildings in New York” at the time were the models and photographs “arranged with such clarity and intelligence” by Philip Johnson on MoMA’s walls. An excerpt:

FORM FOLLOWED FUNCTION…MoMA’s Modern Architecture: International Exhibition, opened on Feb. 10, 1932 in the museum’s first home, New York’s Heckscher building on Fifth Avenue. There was nothing fancy about these gallery spaces, but the exhibits wowed the New Yorkers’s Lewis Mumford, including a model of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye at top right. (MoMA)
HANDSOME OBJECTS…was how Lewis Mumford described works in the exhibition he singled out for praise, including, from top, Mies van der Rohe’s 1930 Villa Tugendhat, Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1929 Jones residence in Tulsa, and Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. At left, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. (MoMA/Wikipedia/

Mumford concluded his review with this bold observation:

ALL ORGANIC…View of Hook of Holland housing complex in Rotterdam, designed by J.J.P. Oud, 1926-1927. (

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Out of the Trenches

Floyd Gibbons (1887 – 1939) was a colorful, fast-talking war correspondent known for his derring-do as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune during World War I (losing an eye in an attempt to rescue an American marine) and later as a radio commentator and narrator of newsreels. His celebrity would even earn him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. For all his death-defying exploits, Gibbons would die at home, of a heart attack, at the tender age of 52.

In his “Notes and Comment” column, E.B. White suggested that Gibbon’s fame had a little help from some friends…

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IN HIS ELEMENT…Floyd Gibbons photographed in 1925 while in Morocco covering the Riff War. Seated to the left is journalist and author Rosemary Drachman, who covered the war with Gibbons. (University of Arizona Libraries)

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Love and War

The fourth of seven films Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich made together, Shanghai Express was a critical success (nominated for three Oscars, winning one for cinematography) for Sternberg as well as for Dietrich and Anna May Wong. This pre-code drama was about a notorious woman (Dietrich, who else) who rides a train through the perils of a Chinese civil war with a British captain (Clive Brook) whom she loves. Critic John Mosher takes it from there:

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LOOMING EVER LARGER…Marlene Dietrich’s image dominated this poster for Shanghai Express, which starred Dietrich and Anna May Wong (top right) as well as Clive Brook and Warner Oland. Oland, pictured at bottom right with Dietrich, was a (non-Asian) Swedish-American actor most remembered for playing Chinese and Chinese-American characters, including his role as Charlie Chan in 16 films between 1931 and 1937. (IMDB)

Dietrich and Wong were well acquainted when they came together to make Shanghai Express. It was rumored the two had a romantic relationship when Wong visited Europe in 1928, a rumor that tarnished Wong’s public image (but seemed to have little effect on Dietrich’s).

OLD FRIENDS…Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and German filmmaker/actress Leni Riefenstahl at a Berlin ball, 1928. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt. At the time Dietrich, Wong and Riefenstahl were close friends.  (granary

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From Our Advertisers

Looking at some advertisements from the Feb. 27 issue…here’s a clip from the back pages of some inexpensive sig ads promoting everything from Broadway to burlesque — Billy Minsky’s was by far the best known burlesque show in Manhattan.    Note how the Minsky’s ad included the racy little drawing (hmmm, not for the kiddies) and the postscript at the bottom following “NEW SHOW EVERY MONDAY” — P.S. For New Yorkers and their Rural cousins… 

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…MoMA wasn’t the only place you could find modern design, as this carpet ad suggested…

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…the folks at Alcoa Aluminum were sticking with a more traditional look, even though they were marketing a very modern aluminum chair…you don’t see these much anymore…I mostly remember them reposing in basement rumpus rooms…

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…the makers of Nash automobiles were keeping with the times with new “Slip-Streamed” models “with lines and curves suggested by aeronautical design”

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…my father’s first car was a used Nash — something similar to this 1951 Nash Statesman…


…Nash would acquire rival Hudson in 1954 to create American Motors Corporation, run by a man named George Romney (Mitt’s dad), who would make AMC a successful company before turning to politics (AMC would go on to make some truly weird, if not lovable vehicles, most notably the Gremlin)…and we segue into our cartoons with this ad for Sanka decaf coffee, illustrated by the New Yorker’s William Steig

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Kemp Starrett gave us a little paddy wagon humor…

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Helen Hokinson illustrated a tender moment between father and son…

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…and we close with James Thurber, and some wintertime fun…

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Next Time: The Milne Menace…


The Shape of Things to Come

It is often observed that when we look to the past we can see our the future. More than 90 years ago, Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) wrote an influential book on modern architecture, Vers une Architecture (1923) that helped to radically change our built environment. Translated into English in 1927 under varying titles (Toward an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), the book caught the appreciative eye of New Yorker architecture critic George Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym “T-Square.”

Nov. 12, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

Given that most new architecture in Manhattan was adorned in architectural stylings from the past, or gussied up in Jazz Age art deco, Chappell was introducing his readers to something very different, to ideas that would transform their city within two generations.



A SOBER-MINDED THINKER…Le Corbusier at work in his apartment at 20 Rue Jacob, Paris, in the late 1920s. (Brassai Paris)

In his embrace of technology and mass production, Corbusier maintained that houses should be built in standardized forms that allowed for continuous refinement, designed as “machines for living” with the same precision as automobiles and airplanes…


In case you doubt the architect’s fervor, here is Corbusier’s manifesto on mass production included in Towards a New Architecture:


MACHINES FOR LIVING…This two-family structure on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, was designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret in 1927. It was one of the first built manifestations of Corbusier’s Five Points of a New Architecture, a manifesto written in 1926. The house set an important precedent for the emerging International Style associated with Germany’s Bauhaus movement. (

In Towards a New Architecture, Corbusier wrote that while architecture was  stifled by custom and lost in the past (“to send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life…”), engineers were embracing new technologies and building simple, effective and “honest” structures. Rather than rely on past forms or contemporary trends such as art deco, Corbusier said architecture should fundamentally change how humans interact with buildings.

ALL DRESSED UP WITH NOWHERE TO GO…A photograph from Towards a New Architecture. Corbusier said contemporary architecture was stifled by custom and lost in the past. (

FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION…Examples of “honest” and functional industrial buildings featured in Towards a New Architecture. (

Corbusier concluded his book with a moral imperative and an ominous choice  for the future: “Architecture or Revolution.”  He asserted that the “great disagreement between the modern state of mind…and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus” would force modern man to live in an “old and hostile environment” and deny him an “organized family life,” ultimately leading to the destruction of the family.

In less than 10 years the Nazis would chase the “degenerate” Bauhaus out of Europe and into the embrace of American academe. In short order Corporate America would adopt Corbusier’s International Style, if imperfectly, but most Americans would prove resistant to making their homes into “machines for living.”

Corbusier would doubtless be shocked (and disappointed) to know that 100 years hence people would still choose to live in mock Tudors and “Tuscan Villas,” especially in the midst of so much advanced technology.

HOME SWEET HOME…Villa Savoye near Paris, France. Designed by Le Corbusier in 1928, completed in 1931. Named a World Heritage Site in 2016. (

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The new Sherry-Netherland apartment hotel near Central Park was exactly the sort of architecture Corbusier detested. The New Yorker editors in “The Talk of the Town,” however, seemed impressed with its elegant appointments…


SUMPTUOUS…The foyer of the Sherry-Netherland, restored to its former glory in 2014. (Wikipedia)

ROOM WITH A VIEW…The Sherry-Netherland penthouse, priced at $35,000 a year in 1927, is now worth more than $100 million.

“Talk” noted that beneath the Sherry-Netherland’s spire the penthouse apartment could be had for $35,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $477,000 today. The building went co-op in the 1950s, and that would have been a good time to buy the penthouse. Today it is valued at more than $100 million.

Poo on Pooh

Dorothy Parker lamented the state of children’s literature in the “Books” section, and expressed her displeasure with A.A. Milne, a former humor writer for Punch who “went quaint” with his Winnie the Pooh stories.


by Howard Coster, half-plate film negative, 1926
OLD SOFTIE…A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear, at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex, in 1926. Photo by Howard Coster. (

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New Game in Town

Niven Busch Jr. wrote about the growing popularity of professional hockey. Tex Rickard’s two-year-old franchise, the New York Rangers, were a major draw at the new Madison Square Garden (they would win the Stanley Cup in their second year), and even Texans were into the sport–Busch noted that a game between Dallas and Fort Worth teams drew 20,000 spectators.


ICE MEN…Stanley Cup winners, the 1927-28 New York Rangers. (

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And finally, from the world of advertising, here is one in a series of classically themed ads for the McCreery department store…


…and this advertisement for the Marmon 8, an “ideal woman’s car”…

Next time: Mutt & Jeff…