Perhaps no decade was more transformative to New York City than the 1920s. From the loosening of social mores to countless technological advances, the city was a very different place as it entered the last year of the Roaring Twenties.
Vestiges of the 19th century were quickly erased during the decade as old neighborhoods and stately mansions gave way to massive apartment blocks and towering skyscrapers. Such was the fate of the original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, its Victorian lavishness out of style in a streamlined age. Writing under the pen name T-Square, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell commented on the planned demolition of the old* Waldorf-Astoria Hotel:
*Although outdated in appearance, the hotel was little more than 30 years old in 1929.
Chappell wrote that the prime building site was slated to be occupied by a 50-story office building…
…but as it turned out, Floyd Brown was unable to make the final payments on the property, so he sold his claim to the bank. John J. Raskob, a wealthy finance executive and chair of the National Democratic Committee, joined with entrepreneur Pierre du Pont and former New York Governor Al Smith (who lost his bid for the U.S. Presidency in 1928) to buy the property. They had much bigger plans than Floyd Brown: In August 1929 they announced their plan to build the tallest building in the world — what would become the Empire State Building.
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The Jan. 5 issue featured a lengthy review of the 29th Annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace, as well as numerous advertisements by auto manufacturers hoping to entice New Yorker readers with their latest models.
Promoters of the event touted the addition of a grand staircase to Grand Central’s mezzanine level that would ease access to both levels of the show:
As I mentioned, the Jan. 5 issue was filled with car ads, mostly from long-gone automobile manufacturers. A constant in all of these ads is their appeal to New York’s chic, smart set. Here’s a sampling of a few of them: (click ads to enlarge):
Hupmobile was a successful car company that began its decline in the late 1920s precisely because it turned its back on buyers of medium-priced cars and went after what it perceived to be the more lucrative luxury buyer (see ad above). Hupmobile went out of business in 1939 (after briefly joining forces with Graham-Paige, which also went under that year).
Cartoonist Leonard Dove found humor derived from these very class distinctions when he visited the auto show:
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The Game, Served Up Cold
In other diversions from the Jan. 5 issue, Niven Busch Jr. attended the hockey game between the New York Rangers and the New York Americans at Madison Square Garden, noting famous faces in the crowd including Finnish track star Paavo Nurmi and American track star Joie Ray. Also noted were Tex Rickard, builder of Madison Square and founder of the Rangers, ex-football star and businessman Col. Harry Hammond, and film star Alice Brady.
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From our non-automobile advertisers, another installment of a Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) ad for Flit insecticide (this is the first instance — at least in the Flit ads— in which Geisel signs his art as “Dr. S” instead of “Seuss”).
And another cartoon from the Jan. 5 issue, courtesy Gardner Rea:
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In the rush of the recent holidays I missed an item from the Dec. 22, 1928 issue — namely, art critic Murdock Pemberton’s tongue cheek review (in “The Art Galleries” column) of cartoonist Peter Arno’s December 1928 exhibition of drawings at the Valentine Gallery:
Here are two Arno drawings that were featured in the Valentine exhibition (click to enlarge):
I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.
The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few.Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:
Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.
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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…
…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…
Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):
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Hello Down There
Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:
This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”
Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:
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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:
Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.
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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929
The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:
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The Passing of a Poet
The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:
It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.
Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According toKaren Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.
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Age of Innocence
The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:
And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:
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Before Baby Snooks
Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:
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Let’s Get Physical
Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:
And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill…