Ride of the Century

Train travel in the U.S. was at the height of its glory in the late 1920s—you could hop on train in New York City and travel to virtually anywhere in the country, even to some of the remotest towns in America’s vast hinterlands.

July 27, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The New Yorker’s managing editor, Ralph Ingersoll (1900-1985) writing in “The Talk of Town,” climbed aboard the locomotives of outbound 20th Century and an inbound Empire State trains to survey the latest technology in rail travel. What one gleans from reading this account is how much this mode of travel has declined (in the U.S.) over the past 90 years:

ROMANCE OF THE RAILS…Clockwise, from top left: Hudson locomotives served the Century and Empire State express trains; silent film star Gloria Swanson waves farewell from the observation platform as the Century pulls out of Grand Central during the 1920s; lounge car on the 20th Century Limited during the 1920s; the 20th Century ready to depart Grand Central, circa 1930. (steamlocomotive.com/newyorksocialdiary.com/cruiselinehistory.com)

In terms of speed and safety, it seems little has changed since 1929, and perhaps things have actually gotten worse…

CELEBRATED LINE…The 20th Century was widely celebrated in popular culture through the 1950s. Five years after Ingersoll’s article, Howard Hawks directed the screwball comedy, 20th Century. Clockwise, from top left, the film’s stars, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a scene from the film; the stars pose for a publicity shot; with director Hawks along with some of the cast and crew. (austinfilm.org/greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com)

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From 1928 until his death in 1950, the journalist Alva Johnston (1888-1950) wrote on a diverse range of topics for the New Yorker, including this “Reporter at Large” piece on the proliferation of barrooms in private residences, hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition agents and sometimes furnished with the bits and pieces that once graced some of New York’s finest watering holes, including the famed Hoffman House:

POPULAR WATERING HOLE…Clockwise, from top left: The Hoffman House Hotel at Madison Square in 1885; the Hoffman House bar, which prominently displayed William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr. According to Alva Johnston’s article, the painting was the second-most popular decorative motif in New York’s finer drinking establishments; artist’s rendering of the barroom; and Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Johnston noted the clever tricks homeowners used to conceal their secret bars:

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER…Alva Johnston described how one library’s walls “had literature on one side, gin and rye on the other.” (Huffington Post)

Johnston concluded his piece on an ironic note, pointing out that the finest cocktail sets could be obtained at Kresge department stores, which were owned by one of the biggest supporters of Prohibition, S.S. Kresge:

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The Sound of Peggy Wood

The Brooklyn-born Peggy Wood (1892-1978) made her stage debut in 1910 and was an established Broadway star before she made her first talking picture, Wonder of Women (a film believed to be lost). A member of the Algonquin Round Table, she was well acquainted with the New Yorker crowd. And the magazine in turn was very impressed with her acting talents, even if the picture she was in proved a bit of a downer:

RECOGNIZE HER NOW?…Clockwise, from top left: theatre card for the 1929 film, Wonder of Women; Leila Hyams and Lewis Stone in a tender moment from the film (for some reason Stone was romantically paired with much younger women in several films around that time); Peggy Wood in the 1920s; Wood as Mother Abbess in 1965’s The Sound of Music; Stone and Wood in a scene from Wonder of Women, with child actor Wally Albright, who was four years old at the time. With his waifish demeanor and curly hair, Albright was highly sought after in films needing a cute kid. He appeared in seven films in 1929 alone. In the 1930s he would appear in several Our Gang/Little Rascal shorts, and would pop up in bit roles through the 1940s and early 50s. Unlike so many other child stars, he seems to have led a normal adult life. He won the Men’s National Track and Ski Championship in 1957, and later started a successful trucking firm. (IMDB/Pinterest)

…the review continued, suggesting that Wood’s acting alone carried the picture…

…if you weren’t into weepers like Wonder of Women, you could have instead checked out The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu at the Rialto Theatre…

LIKE A SIDESHOW ACT…New York’s Rialto Theatre donned a masked front and door entry wrappers for the premiere of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu; promotional poster; Jean Arthur and Warner Oland in the film. Oland was not the least bit Asian. A Swedish-American actor, his work in the hit film led to three more Fu Manchu movies. Oland would then go on to play another Asian character, Charlie Chan, in a string of popular movies in the 1930s until his death in 1938. (cinematreasures.org)

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Just Sad

Yet another note in “Talk of the Town” describing the plight of African Americans in segregated America, without a hint of empathy:

Potters Field on Hart Island, New York, circa 1890. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

Last week B. Altman offered rugged coats for those brave souls riding in rumble seats. This week Altman rolled out some stylish wear for the enterprising pilot of 1929…

…and while you were up there, you could calm those nerves with a Chesterfield (a two-page ad that appeared regularly in the New Yorker)…

,,,back on the ground, the makers of Most toothpaste reminded readers to brush those tobacco stains off their teeth, apparently even while they’re smoking…

…here is another sampling of drawings by Garrett Price, rendered after a recent trip to Paris…

…our cartoons come from Leonard Dove (note the backward signature)…

…here we have A. Edwin Macon’s take on modern furniture…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a visit to an eye doctor…

Perry Barlow’s take on the wonders of radio…

Rea Irvin depicted how timing is everything in an ice delivery…

…and Peter Arno peeked in on habits of the idle rich…

Next Time: The Art of Peace…

 

 

 

 

While You Were Away

During the Roaring Twenties New Yorkers took a wrecking ball to much of their past, and at a breathtaking pace that left many residents little time to ponder what was lost.

March 30, 1929 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes succinctly summed up this spirit of the times in a tongue-in-cheek “reminiscence” of the “old” New York—that is, how the city appeared the previous fall before he left to spend the winter in Bermuda:

NOW WHERE WILL I GET A WALDORF SALAD? Writer Gilbert Seldes (top left) ticked off some of the many changes to his city while he was away for the winter, including (clockwise, from top right), the murder of racketeer Arnold Rothstein; the planned demolition of the Waldorf Astoria to make room for the Empire State Building (photo of the partially demolished hotel); and perhaps the first song to be overplayed on the radio ad nauseumAl Jolson’s “Sonny Boy.” (Wikipedia, Daily News, New York Public Library, musicals101.com)

A member of the intellectual elite but also a strong advocate for cultural democracy, Seldes began writing for the New Yorker in late 1925 and would be a frequent contributor through 1936. In 1937 he would join CBS as its first director of television programs, and would also become one of television’s first critics thanks to his 1937 Atlantic Monthly article, “The ‘Errors’ of Television.” (Note: There were only 50 experimental TV sets in the New York area in 1937, and the first commercially available sets weren’t sold until 1939). In 1958—when there would be 42 million U.S. households with a television—Seldes would serve as the host of NBC’s The Subject is Jazz.

THE SUBJECT IS JAZZ host Gilbert Seldes in 1958 visiting with the show’s producer, George Norford; at right, Seldes interviewing Duke Ellington. (Getty Images)

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Peggy Bacon Did It All

Another early contributor to the New Yorker was Peggy Bacon, who displayed her sharp wit in her nearly 50 articles and poems for the magazine from 1926 to 1950. But Bacon was also well-known for displaying her talent and wit in the many paintings and illustrations she created throughout her long career. The New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton sang her praises in the March 30, 1929 issue after visiting her show at the Weyhe Gallery.

A FEW IDEAS was the title of this 1927 drypoint work featured in Peggy Bacon’s Weyhe Gallery show. At right, Bacon, circa 1920s. (artnet.com/wikipedia)
A sampling of Peggy Bacon drypoint works from the 1920s, clockwise, from top: Frenzied Effort, 1925; Vanity, 1929; Penguin Island, 1926. (Brooklyn Museum/Artnet/1stdibs.com)

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The March 30 profile featured aviation innovator Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, who in 1922 designed the first enclosed-cabin monoplane in the U.S. Perhaps even more significant, his design in 1913 of a plane with a propeller in front, a wing in the middle and tail at the end set the standard for all aircraft built since. (Before 1913 many planes were propelled from the rear, with the “tail” projected in front of the craft). The profile writer, William Weimer (with art by Hugo Gellert) admired Bellanca’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty du Pont family:

Bellanca founded the Roos-Bellanca Aircraft Company in Omaha in 1927, and was featured on the cover of Time. In 1929 he created the Delaware-based Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of America in a financial partnership with the du Ponts.

AVIATION PIONEER Giuseppe Mario Bellanca (center) at the new Bellanca Airfield in New Castle, Delaware, 1928. Bellanca’s planes would establish numerous records for altitude, endurance, and speed. (Delaware Public Archives)

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Showing Some Restraint

In his “Sky Line” column, the New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) praised an award-winning 1928 apartment at 3 East 84th Street for its contemporary charm and “fine restraint.” Designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, the 9-story building was commissioned by Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News. The design would be influential in Hood’s much more ambitious projects two years later—the Daily News Building (1930) and Rockefeller Center (1931).


The Raymond Hood– and John Mead Howells-designed 3 East 84th Street. Top right, the front entrance; and bottom right, ceiling’s silver leaf squares. (Susan DeMark–mindfulwalker.com)

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Advertisers in the March 30 issue offered various garments for the gentleman, including this sports-country ensemble at left from Finchley and a custom lounging robe from Macy’s…

…and for fashionable, amusingly mischievous woman there was the new “Scalawag” hat by Knox (ad illustrated by the great Carl Erickson)

…Blue Moon’s blonde fairy girl was one of the Jazz Age’s most recognizable labels…here she is matched with an Art Deco-inspired spectrum of stocking colors…

…Ligget & Myers Tobacco Company joined the ranks of sophisticated advertisers who touted a product—in this case Fatima cigarettes—without actually showing the product…

…on the other hand, American Tobacco Company, the makers of Lucky Strike, made doubly sure you wouldn’t forget that bright red bullseye, or Rosalie Adele Nelson, “The Original Lucky Poster Girl”…

Nelson’s image for Lucky Strike was almost as ubiquitous as the fairy in the Blue Moon ads. Apparently she was also a member the Nelson family of circus acrobats and performed her own signature act with baby elephants:

Rosalie Adele Nelson with her baby elephant act, 1929 (eBay)

Philip Morris took an entirely different (and unusual) approach to selling its relatively new brand of Marlboro cigarettes by touting the achievements of Gretchen Colnik, winner of the “1928 Marlboro Contest for Distinguished Handwriting….”

Like Rosalie Adele Nelson, Gretchen Colnik would go on to minor fame of her own. She was managing editor of the Great Neck, NY, newspaper before returning to her hometown—Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From 1952 to 1966 Gretchen was the Martha Stewart of Milwaukee, hosting a TV show that provided advice on interior design, food and crafts. “The Gretchen Colnik Show” was sponsored by Mrs. Karl’s Bread.

Our cartoon is by Leonard Dove, who looks in on an architect at work:

The Cruelest Month

The film reviews for the April 6, 1929 issue found the New Yorker once again at odds with Hollywood and favoring cinematic products from the Old World.

April 6, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

In the case it was a French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which even today is regarded as a cinematic landmark.

A LOT AT STAKE…American poster for The Passion of Joan of Arc; at right, Maria Falconetti in the title role. (Wikipedia/Film Forum)

The New Yorker review praised the film as “one of the few of the year which merit serious attention”…

On the other hand, there were the latest products from Hollywood, which stood on the other side of a “vast abyss” from the French film:

HO HUM FOR HOLLYWOOD…At left, Mary Dugan (Norma Shearer) with her conniving lawyer, Edward West (Lewis Stone) in The Trial of Mary Dugan; Lewis Stone was a apparently a busy man in the late 1920s—here he is again (center image), this time portraying John Sterling, a tea plantation investor lacking the mojo to keep up with his much younger wife, Lillie (Greta Garbo) in Wild Orchids; and at right, Janet Gaynor as a little Dutch girl in Christina, a film now considered lost. Click image to enlarge (normashearer.com/pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

The April 6 issue found Charlie Chaplin getting in on the action of Old Gold cigarette endorsements…

…while Curtiss Flying Service thought it might interest some of the more well-heeled New Yorker readers in the purchase of an airplane…

…a couple weeks later, in the April 20 issue, the New Yorker would make this observation about the ad in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and finally, our cartoon by R. Van Buren, looking in on yet another sugar daddy and his much younger companion on a night out…

Next Time: Generation of Vipers…