Queen of the Night Clubs

In the Roaring Twenties, Mary Louise Cecilia—aka Texas Guinan—was the undisputed queen of New York’s boozy, bawdy nightclub and speakeasy scene.

March 23, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

During the 1920s Guinan operated one of New York’s most famed speakeasies, The El Fey Club, which attracted the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker, actors George Raft and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, writers including Ring Larder and Damon Runyon, and gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Mark Hellinger, and Ed Sullivan (yep, the same Ed who later hosted TV’s most famous variety show).

It was still months before the big stock market crash, but in the pages of the New Yorker you could already sense a change in its voice; it was maturing, to be sure, but it also seemed to be growing weary of the party. The magazine’s nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, contributed sporadically to her once-lively “Tables for Two” column (she was now a mother, and would abandon the column altogether in 1930). As for the queen of nightlife, Texas Guinan, New Yorkers were ready for something different.

BEATING THE RAP…In June 1928 Texas Guinan and other New York speakeasy operators were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury. Guinan beat the rap, and was acquitted in April 1929. (ephemeralness york)

In a review of her latest movie, Queen of the Night Clubs, the New Yorker found that Guinan lacked her famed charm and vitality, and that the camera was “not kind to her looks.”

THE FINAL CURTAIN…Clockwise from top left: Texas Guinan in a nightclub scene from Queen of the Night Clubs; trading lines in the film with John Davidson; a 1929 portrait of Guinan by Cecil Beaton; and a scene from the film with co-star Lila Lee (far right). The film is considered lost. (boweryboyshistory.com/texasguinan.blogspot.com)

The film in many ways marked the end of Texas Guinan, not so much because it was a bad film but because she had simply run her course and was going out of style. The market crash later that year was the final straw. She took her show on the road, made an unsuccessful attempt at a European tour, then returned to the States. She made one final film, Broadway Thru A Keyhole, which was based on a story by Guinan acolyte Walter Winchell. Guinan died on Nov. 5, 1933, three days after the film’s release; her death was due to ulcerative colitis brought on by a case of amoebic dysentery contracted during a visit to Chicago. She was 49. One month later, Prohibition would be repealed.

A final note: Queen of the Night Clubs would be Texas Guinan’s final starring role (the film is considered lost), but before she became a night club fixture she was a popular star in dozens of shorts and two-reelers—with mostly Western themes— from 1917 to 1921.

HAPPIER TRAILS…Texas Guinan featured in a movie poster and publicity photo for The Two-Gun Woman, 1918. (Columbia University)

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A Film of Biblical Proportions

The New Yorker’s May 23 film review also sized up the latest epic to come out of Hollywood—Noah’s Ark—a picture with parallel storylines known mostly for its innovations in special effects.

The film premiered in late 1928 as a silent and was re-released in 1929 as a “part-talkie.” It told the story of Noah and the Great Flood, connected to another story featuring cabaret singers, soldiers and espionage during the First World War. Here is the New Yorker’s take on the film:

IDENTITY CRISES…Various promotional posters touted different aspects of the partial-sound film, Noah’s Ark. The one at left promoted the film’s biblical story, while the one at right played up Dolores Costello’s sex appeal. (IMDB)

The New Yorker concluded that the film was worth seeing for the Noah story’s special effects, despite its attachment to a “dreary and banal” war picture.

DUAL ROLES…Dolores Costello (seated, at left) played both a cabaret dancer, Marie, and Noah’s handmaiden Miriam, in Noah’s Ark. Note in the first photo the actress at far left, with her leg propped up on the chair—that’s Myrna Loy, who would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 30s and 40s. As for Costello, known as “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” her greatest success was in the silent era. Click image to enlarge. (1stdibs.com, IMDB)
BIG SHOW…Portions of Noah’s Ark were filmed at the famed Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, including the opening shot that featured a massive ark (top, left) beached on the boulders of the movie ranch’s Garden of the Gods. Other scenes from the film included (moving clockwise, from top right) Paul McAllister as Noah, issuing a warning to the heathen as Noah’s son Japheth (George O’Brien) and servant girl Miriam (Dolores Costello) cower at right; the heathen masses desperately clamoring to board the ark as they are engulfed by the flood (600,000 gallons of water was used in the scene—three of the extras actually drowned during the filming); Japheth carries the rescued Miriam into the ark. Click image to enlarge. (IMDB, Wikipedia, dukewayne.com, medium.com)

Notable about these silent epics is the lack of precaution they took with both the actors and the extras. A huge amount of water—600,000 gallons—was used to film the the climactic flood scene. Three extras drowned and many others suffered broken bones and other serious injuries. One extra had to have his leg amputated. As for the stars, Dolores Costello caught a severe case of pneumonia during the filming.

Here’s a clip to give you an idea of what the extras had to deal with:

Some trivia: John Wayne was an extra in the film, and also worked in the prop department. The director of Noah’s Ark, Michael Curtiz, would go on to direct some of the most well-known films of the 20th century, including The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Angels with Dirty Faces with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca with Bogart and Ingrid BergmanMildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, and White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. He would also direct an Elvis Presley movie, King Creole, and in his final film would reunite with John Wayne in 1961’s The Comancheros.

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While Americans were enjoying epic filmmaking, Russian audiences were being served up the latest in propaganda, although this was propaganda presented with stunning film innovations and avant-garde sequences. In this item from the March 23 “Talk of the Town” the film is referred to as Through Russia With A Camera, but today it is known as Man with a Movie Camera. This experimental silent film from 1929 supposedly documented ordinary life in Soviet Union (with no signs of the famine that claimed 5 million Soviet citizens in the early 1920s). Directed by Dziga Vertov, the documentary’s famed cinematography was by Mikhail Kaufman. “Talk” observed:

AVANT GARDE…Poster for Man with a Movie Camera rendered in the Constructivist style. At right, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman risks his life for a unique camera angle. (Wikipedia)
Clockwise, from top left: Cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman prepares to set up for a Black Sea beach sequence near Odessa; images of ordinary life include a woman at a hairdresser and a young woman fastening her bra; the eye through the camera lens, the film’s final image. (ascmag.com)

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From Our Advertisers

A sampling of advertisements from the pages of the March 23 issue include this nearly two-page spread for Pond’s cold cream…no doubt Pond’s was thrilled with this endorsement by “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr,” otherwise known as Mary Weir of Davenport, Iowa. Mary was wife No. 2 of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seven wives. Mary and Cornelius were married in 1928 and divorced in 1931…

…and then we have this advertisement from Knox hatters, illustrated by the New Yorker’s own Rea Irvin

…this advertisement for the new Lincoln Building played up the building’s dominating form on Madison Avenue…

…a dominance that continues to this day. I know it’s not cool to gaze up at buildings in Manhattan, but if you’re ever in the neighborhood you must look upward at least once and gaze at the canyon that splits the Lincoln Building’s massive facade…

Lincoln Building, circa 1950. (Museum of the City of New York)

…this Remington typewriter was the closest thing to a desktop computer in 1929…I own one of these and I must attest that it isn’t exactly noiseless…

…this next ad caught my eye because it encouraged people to commit negligent homicide by throwing their product out of a high-rise window…it is also interesting because today Crosley is still a big name in radios and record players, although today’s Crosley is similar in name only. The original Crosley Corporation was a major player in early radio broadcasting, and in addition to manufacturing radios Crosley would go on to build refrigerators, a line of inexpensive subcompact cars and trucks (from 1939 to ’52) cars, and even small airplanes (1929-’36). Crosley ceased as a brand name in 1956, but the name was revived in 1984 by Modern Marketing Concepts. Today Crosley is a leading manufacturer of vintage-styled turntables, radios and other electronics…

…speaking of encouraging ridiculous behavior, some clever marketer at Ronson lighters found a great way not only to sell lighters, but also to encourage customers to waste lots of lighter fluid…

…and then we have this, one of the unlikeliest advertisements ever to appear in the New Yorker—at first I thought it was one of E.B. White’s fake newspapers, but it was actually a two-page spread promoting Davey Tree Surgeons of all things…

…just for fun I am tossing in this illustration by Constantin Aladjalov that appeared along the bottom of a two-page spread…

…and finally, our cartoon from Otto Soglow, in which our subject is either referring to a popular board game from 1929, or a particular sequence in a domino game…

Next Time: While You Were Away…

 

Modern English Usage

The fourth anniversary issue of the New Yorker gave every indication that the magazine had arrived as a cultural force.

Fourth anniversary cover, Feb. 23, 1929, by Rea Irvin.

Rich in content, the issue’s offering’s ranged from the famed humorous short “You Were Perfectly Fine” by Dorothy Parker, a profile of famed maestro Arturo Toscanini, and various accounts on the romance between Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow. The issue also featured this “organization chart” drawn by Julian de Miskey:

The little door marked “Tony’s” in the bottom right-hand corner referred to a celebrated speakeasy operated by Tony Soma. It was a second home to many New Yorker staffers, and was patronized by hard-drinking actors and writers including Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and also a young actor named Humphrey Bogart.

Another notable item in the Feb. 23 issue was this contribution by James Thurber in which he lampooned H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a handbook that New Yorker Editor-in-Chief Harold Ross considered to be the last word in matters of punctuation and grammar. Thurber would write a dozen entries in this series, including the following (click to enlarge):

The New Yorker could never get enough of Charles Lindbergh, even though his personality was every bit as wooden as that of the former President Calvin Coolidge. The Feb. 23 “Talk of the Town” speculated on “Charlie’s” affections for Anne Morrow, and the woe that would befall anyone who challenged the famed flyboy for those affections:

COME FLY WITH ME…Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Charles Lindbergh shortly after their marriage in May 1929. (Bio.com)
SON-IN-LAW…Charles and Anne visiting Anne’s parents, Elisabeth and Dwight Morrow, in 1931. Charles met Anne during a visit to Mexico when Dwight was served as ambassador to that country. (kaiology.wordpress.com)

A second item in the Feb. 23 “Talk” section took a closer look at Charles’ courtship habits, or lack thereof…

Even Howard Brubaker got in a word regarding the Lindbergh-Morrow courtship in his column, “Of All Things”…

As we know, Brubaker had it wrong. Rather than pining away at home, Anne would become one of the 20th century’s most beloved writers, a leading feminist voice, and an accomplished aviator in her own right.

SORRY CHARLIE…As one for the most beloved writers of the 20th century, Anne Morrow Lindbergh would go on to match and even eclipse her husband’s fame. (PBS)

*  *  *

Little Yehudi

Yehudi Menuhin is known to classical music lovers as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. But as this “Talk” item suggests, he was once a little boy, more or less…

STILL IN SHORT PANTS…A young Yehudi Menuhin poses with conductor Bruno Walter in Berlin, 1931. Just two years after this photo was taken, Walter would flee Nazi Germany and eventually settle in the U.S. (Wikipedia)

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More Fun With Lois

Although Lois Long devoted most of her ink to her weekly fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” she continued to write her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” though somewhat sporadically. Which makes sense because around this time Long was also either pregnant (she was married to New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno) or was now the mother of a daughter, Patricia. The reason I’m not sure is that I have birth dates from both 1928 and 1929 for Patricia, depending on sources. At any rate, Long was taking in the nightlife in a big way, moving from club to club and assessing the quality of their various acts:

CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS…Lois Long caught a glimpse of Clifton Webb (seen here accepting champagne from fellow actor Jimmy Savo in 1934) while she was out on the town. (Getty)

At the Lido, Beatrice Lillie sang “for the edification of devoted admirers”…

AT THE LIDO you could see British actress, singer and comedic performer Beatrice Lillie light up the stage. (vintag.es)

…Long also commented on the arrival of French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, who promised to inject some life into the Paul Whitman Orchestra performing at the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic

Flyer announcing Maurice Chevalier’s upcoming performance at the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic.
THANK HEAVEN…Maurice Chevalier in a 1929 publicity photo. He is mostly known today for his appearance in the 1958 film Gigi and his rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” (thefamouspeople.com)

As for the rest of the New York nightlife, Long hoped that in the end it was all for fun, and that there was no “deep meaning” behind the frivolity:

SHALLOW WATERS…Eddie Jackson, Jimmy Durante, Lou Clayton performing their act in the motion picture Roadhouse Nights, 1930. (digitalcollections.nypl.org)

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Something In the Air

The “On The Air” column noted that NBC had made a brave attempt at rebroadcasting the music of the London Symphony Orchestra from Queen’s Hall and had “succeeded in coaxing a section of Rachmaninoff’s E Minor Symphony across the Atlantic.” It was also reported that the General Electric Company of Schenectady, in its ongoing research into television, had successful sent an image of famed film director D.W. Griffith across the country to California. In a separate item. “The Talk of the Town” also reported on the achievement…

…and advances continued in motion pictures, the “talkies” quickly overtaking the silents and even resorting to such tricks as lip-syncing:

SORRY DEAR, YOU’VE BEEN DUBBED…Betty Compson with Richard Barthelmess in Weary River. While Barthelmess’s character sings and plays the piano throughout the film, Barthelmess himself did not sing or play the piano. Frank Churchill played the piano and Johnny Murray sang into a microphone far away from Barthelmess while he lip-synced and played a piano which had strings deadened with felt. (TCM)

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For the anniversary issue, and for old time’s sake, the New Yorker tossed in this little filler joke from its first issue, a joke that was repeated ad nauseam in subsequent issues:

This riddle, told backwards, appeared to be a mistake, but it was most likely an attack on two-liners found in humor magazines of the day like Judge and Punch.

From Our Advertisers

Advertising was booming for the New Yorker in 1929, the magazine recording nearly $2 million in ad sales that year (compared to just $36,000 in their first year, 1925). Now on to the ads…

In a recent post we followed the mostly wealthy New York snowbirds down to Palm Beach, Florida, which during the 1920s grew from a quiet village to a resort for the rich and famous. For those who couldn’t make it, they could install “Vita Glass” and bring Palm Beach to Park Avenue…

…and as spring approached, one could catch a bit of nature’s breezes atop 730 Park Avenue…

…or live like a demi-god above the toiling masses at Fifth Avenue’s Lefcourt National…

…back on terra firma, we find W.C. Fields the latest endorser of Old Golds…

…this has to be the most audacious attempt to add sex appeal to canned ham…

And finally, our illustrators…Garrett Price contributed some fine drawings of Nice and Monte Carlo…

Barbara Shermund looked in on young toffs making idle chat…

…and Rea Irvin, finding everyone perplexed over Einstein’s unified field theory…

Next Time: The Capones at Home…

 

Life Among the Snowbirds

Florida’s Palm Beach became a popular destination in the 1920s for well-heeled New Yorkers seeking a respite from winter’s cold and gloom.

Jan. 26, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin / Feb. 2, 1929 cover by Sue Williams.

Among them was the New Yorker’s nightlife correspondent and fashion critic Lois Long, who (writing in the Feb. 2 issue) discovered that many snowbirds left their fashion sense back home, or in some cases didn’t have any in the first place…

THOSE GENTLE BREEZES…Dining at the Coconut Grove in Palm Beach, 1928. (Town and Country)
Sufficiently appalled by the fashion scene, Long then offered some advice for those seeking a smarter look in the southern climes…

AHOY THERE…Beach pajamas were a popular choice in the 1920s. (artdecogal.com)
BIG BOOSTER…The financier Otto Kahn was one of Palm Beach’s biggest promoters. Here he relaxes with friends at one of his Palm Beach “cottages” (this one is the Oheka Cottage, designed by August Geiger, on North Ocean Boulevard). L to R: New York socialite  Sarah Jane Sanford, Otto Kahn, Margaret “Nin” Kahn Ryan (Kahn’s eldest daughter), Betty Bonstetten (of the Rothschild banking fortune), and seated, Nancy Yuille (tobacco heiress who would later marry the Viscount Adair and become the Countess of Dunraven) and Swiss architect Maurice Fatio. (Ellen Glendinning Ordway Collection via New York Social Diary)
LOIS IS WATCHING YOU…A sampling of 1920s Palm Beach fashions Lois Long might have spotted during her visit. (vintage.es/picgran.com)

Long concluded her fashion advice with the dictum that when in doubt, keep it simple…

Long must have made the trip with her husband, the New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, since he contributed his own take on the scene in the Feb. 16, 1929 issue — a two-page illustration titled “Go South, Young Man, Go South.” (click image to enlarge)

Palm Beach was also on the minds of the New Yorker editors when they composed the Jan. 26 issue, which featured a parody by Josie Turner of the popular Elsie Dinsmore book series: “Elsie Dinsmore at Palm Beach.” A brief excerpt:

Note: The Elsie Dinsmore books (there were 28 of them) featured an impossibly upright eight-year-old and were hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The Feb. 2, 1929 issue featured another Palm Beach-themed parody — this one by Frank Sullivan — that took a poke at Addison Mizner (1872-1933) a fixture of Palm Beach social life who designed resorts and houses for the rich and famous. He is often credited with giving South Florida its signature Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival styles of architecture (Augustus Mayhew, writing for the New York Social Diary, begs to differ: he notes that architect August Geiger established the style in Palm Beach three years before Mizner). An excerpt from Sullivan’s New Yorker parody:

Later in the piece, Sullivan took a crack at a fictitious member of Palm Beach society, a “Mrs. Twink,” who was engaged in the latest “fad” — fishing:

STORYTELLER IN BRICK AND STONE…Addison Mizner epitomized the “society architect.” He was known for making new buildings look like they had taken centuries to construct, even creating stories for his houses that described how they “evolved” through their many owners and historical eras. At right, Mizner’s own Palm Beach residence, Villa Mizner, on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. It was built in 1924. (palmbeachdailynews.com/Merritt Hewitt)
HIS KIND OF PEOPLE…Fashionably dressed members of the Mizner-designed Everglades Club gather in the Marble Patio in the 1920s. (Historical Society of Palm Beach County)
STILL THERE…The Everglades Club today. Opened in January 1919, it was Mizner’s first big commission. (Wikipedia)

The Feb. 2 issue also featured this Peter Arno cartoon of one snowbird’s reaction to Palm Beach living:

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The New Yorker loved to take potshots at the news media, and particularly at the then rather staid New York Times, which apparently had secured exclusive rights to cover Admiral Richard Byrd’s famed exploration of the South Pole by airplane. In his Jan. 26 “Of All Things” column, Howard Brubaker quipped:

In the following issue, Feb 2, Rea Irvin imagined how a coddled Times reporter might cover the historic expedition:

ONE TOUGH BYRD…Admiral Robert Byrd (inset) led expeditions in the Antarctic from 1928 to 1930 by snowshoe, dog-sled, snowmobile and three airplanes that were transported (partially disassembled) by ship to a base camp on the Ross Ice Shelf. Pictured are Harold June, Commander Byrd, and Bernt Balchen in front of a Fairchild airplane, dubbed “Stars and Stripes.” The plane was used to take aerial photographs. (Richard E. Byrd Papers, The Ohio State University)

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Grouchy Groucho

Near the back of the Feb. 2 issue (page 61), comedian Groucho Marx contributed this tongue-in-cheek demand for a retraction from the New Yorker editors:

WIT…A young Groucho Marx in 1930. (Wikipedia)

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Fun With the Rockefellers

John K. Winkler contributed this piece to the Feb. 2, 1929 “Talk of the Town” that described a “playhouse” John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built for his five sons:

NOT FOR PEEWEE…The three-story playhouse on the Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills. (New York Social Diary)

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From Our Advertisers

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…perhaps you want to stay in shape, like this hockey star. Then grab a Lucky…

…or maybe you’d like to sing like Eddie Cantor, who soothed his throat with an Old Gold…

…and we close with these comic observations of life among New York society, again featuring the work of Peter Arno

…and back to the cold New York City winter, with Leonard Dove

Next Time: Million Dollar Mermaid…

 

The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

 * * *

Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

 * * *

Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

 * * *

How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…

Lighter Than Air

Just a decade after German Zeppelins sowed terror across the skies of Europe and Great Britain, Germany’s new Graf Zeppelin was enthusiastically welcomed by a throng gathered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the massive airship having completed its first intercontinental trip across the Atlantic.

Oct. 27, 1928 cover by Peter Arno.

It had been only ten years and two months since German Zeppelins dropped their last bombs on the British, which had dubbed the airships “baby killers” for the mostly civilian casualties they inflicted. Beginning in 1915, Zeppelin raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000 over the course of more than 50 attacks. It must have been a terrifying sight, something straight out of science fiction — flying ships more than the length of two football fields, blotting out the stars as they loomed overhead. Their size, however, was also their downfall, as Britain soon developed air defenses (searchlights, antiaircraft guns, and fighter planes) that shot many of these hydrogen gasbags out of the sky (77 of Germany’s 115 airships were either shot down or disabled).

TERROR IN THE SKIES…Image from a German postcard celebrating the bombing of Warsaw by the Zeppelin Schütte Lanz in 1914. Here’s a weird fact: There was a shortage of sausages in Germany during WWI, since cow intestines normally used for casings were instead used to create special bags to hold the hydrogen gas that kept Zeppelins aloft. It took more than 250,000 cows to make one airship. (Wikipedia)

So when the 776-foot Graf Zeppelin loomed over the New York City skyline on Oct. 15, 1928, the reaction was one of awe rather than terror. The New York Times heralded its safe arrival on the front page…

(rarenewspaper.com)
NO BOMBS…JUST VISITING…The Graf Zeppelin loomed above New York City in October 1928. (Getty)

…and the New Yorker’s James Thurber (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) was on hand to assess the welcoming crowds gathered at Lakehurst, N.J….

…who in their enthusiasm could have easily destroyed the vessel, which had already sustained damage during a storm over Bermuda…

OLD GAS BAG…The Graf Zeppelin arriving at Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport) on August 26, 1929, during a stop on its flight around the world. (silodrome.com)
Living quarters of the Graf Zeppelin. Cozy, if you could forget that your room was contained within an envelope of highly explosive hydrogen gas. (airships.net)

Dining aboard the Graf Zeppelin. (Top, airshipsonline.com, bottom, airships.net)

Reuben’s restaurant in New York seized the opportunity to cash in on the spectacle, boasting (in this hastily placed ad in the Oct. 27 issue) that the Graf Zeppelin’s passengers dined at their establishment on the very night of their arrival…

A final note: Considering the hazards of flying these ungainly, flammable machines (e.g. the Hindenburg in 1937) Graf Zeppelin flew more than one million miles in its career (the first aircraft in history to do so), making 590 flights (144 of them oceanic crossings, including one across the Pacific), and carrying more than 13,000 passengers — all without injury to passengers or crew.

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Rough Riders

Back on the ground, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on a somewhat less exotic form of long-distance travel — the recently inaugurated coast-to-coast bus service from New York to Los Angeles:

LONG HAUL…This greyhound bus from 1929 was probably similar to those leaving the New York bus stations for points west in 1928. (flickr)

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From Our Advertisers

On the subject of rolling transportation, Buick trumpeted the introduction of “adjustable front seats” in its silver anniversary model. Curiously, this improvement was touted as a convenience solely for women drivers…

Our cartoon (a two-pager) for Oct. 27 comes from Gardner Rea, the latest among the New Yorker’s staff to mock the quality of sound motion pictures. The cartoon is labeled at the bottom: “The Firtht One Hundred Per Thent Thound Movie Breakth All Houth Recordth.” (click image to enlarge)

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If you wanted to get a glimpse of New York’s “royalty” in 1928, you could secure a seat at the Metropolitan Opera, especially one with a view of its famed “Diamond Horseshoe” seats.

November 3, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The “Diamond Horseshoe” described a ring of seats at the Metropolitan Opera House occupied by New York’s social elite. Not unlike today’s stadium skyboxes, the Met reserved these boxes for purchase by the wealthy. “The Talk of Town” for Nov. 3, 1928 noted how many of these were still held by the same families that had secured spots after the Met opened in 1883:

CULTURAL LANDMARK…The Metropolitan Opera House at Broadway and 39th Street circa 1905. (Wikipedia)
A PLACE TO SEE AND BE SEEN…Leading figures of New York society seated in the Met’s famed “Diamond Horseshoe” section in 1929. (NY Daily News)

“Talk” also noted that some of the boxes in the Diamond Horseshoe were coming into new ownerships among the newly rich (E.F. Hutton) and even (gasp) immigrants such as Otto Kahn:

DUST TO DUST…Above, a view of the “Diamond Horseshoe” at the Metropolitan Opera’s gala farewell performance on April 16, 1966. Below, patrons say goodbye to the old house at Broadway at the farewell performance. The building was torn down in 1967 and replaced by a 40-story office tower. (Life)

Also in the Nov. 3 issue was this comic by Peter Arno depicting one of the Met’s boxes stuffed with overfed toffs:

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Poet With a Green Thumb

The Nov. 3 “Talk” also featured a bit by James Thurber on American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay, a major figure in New York’s Greenwich Village literary scene as well as a feminist leader. A Pulitzer-Prize winner (1923), Millay was also an avid gardener who preferred the solitude of her farm, Steepletop, to the limelight usually accorded a literary star:

RARE PHOTOGRAPH…Edna St. Vincent Millay raised her own vegetables at Steepletop, a former blueberry farm located near Austerlitz, New York that she owned with her husband Eugen Jan Boissevain. Photo is circa 1928. (Library of Congress)

Thurber noted that even her publisher, Harper & Sons, had to use an old photo of the publicity-shy poet for a new book release:

On the topic of photography, “Profiles” (written by film historian Terry Ramsaye) looked in on the quiet life of photography pioneer George Eastman, who founded the Eastman Kodak Company and popularized the use of roll film.

A quintessential “mamma’s boy,” Eastman never married…

…and by all accounts died a celibate less than four years after this profile was written, taking his own life at age 77. Suffering from intense pain caused by a spinal disorder, Eastman shot himself in the heart on March 14, 1932, leaving a note which simply read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”

Odds and Ends

Other items of note from the Nov. 3 issue included a humorous piece by Rube Goldberg, “The Red Light District,” in which the president of the Blink Stop-Go Traffic Company summons a doctor to treat a strange malady. The doctor gets held up by traffic lights on the way to the “emergency,” and when he discovers the problem is only hives, he shoots the patient. The piece was headlined by this artwork, also by Goldberg.

Rube Goldberg is still known today thanks to his series of cartoons depicting deliberately complex contraptions invented to perform simple tasks, such as the “Self-Operating Napkin” below, from 1931:

1931 (Wikipedia)

Cartooning’s highest honor, The Reuben Award, was named after Goldberg, who was a longtime honorary president of the National Cartoonists Society.

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The Roaring 20s saw a rapid transformation of the New York skyline, with massive skyscrapers rising from the dust of old 18th and 19th century institutions. But few would signal the new age more than the Chrysler Building, an Art Deco landmark that would stand as the world’s tallest building for nearly a year (knocked from the top spot in May 1931 by the Empire State Building). Architecture critic George S. Chappell (“T-Square”) had this observation about the planned building:

EVOLUTION OF AN ICON…Stages in the design for the Chrysler building, from the July-December 1929 issue of Progressive Architecture.

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More from our advertisers…in the Nov. 3 issue Hawaii beckoned well-heeled New Yorkers who were contemplating the coming winter…

…and then there was this poorly executed ad for Kolster radios, the whole point seeming to be the drawing they commissioned from New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno:

And finally, a cartoon by Alan Dunn, who looked in on an Ivy League football huddle:

Next Time: Diamond Lil…

 

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

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In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Breeze

In the days before air conditioning, summertime city dwellers escaped the heat by fleeing to the countryside or the coast, or, if they lacked the time or the means, by taking their dining and dancing to one of Gotham’s breezy rooftop nightclubs.

June 30, 1928 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In her column “Tables for Two,” nightlife correspondent Lois Long welcomed the addition of rooftop dining atop the St. Regis Hotel, which featured decor by the famed theatrical set designer and architect Joseph Urban:

The St. Regis Hotel in New York City. (StreetEasy)

Illustrations by Alice Harvey (in the July 7, 1928 issue) depicted diners and dancers on the St. Regis rooftop…

“DISDAINFUL ROOSTERS” looked down upon diners from Joseph Urban’s roof garden murals at the St. Regis. At right, Urban in 1920. Urban was right at home at the St. Regis, and even died there in 1933 after suffering a heart attack in his apartment. (artcontrarian.blogspot.com / Columbia University, Butler Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
CONTINENTAL INSPIRATION…Joseph Urban’s 1928 design for the Roof Garden at the Hotel Gibson in Cincinnati, Ohio, was inspired by 19th century European pleasure gardens. (Cooper Hewitt)

Long also fondly recalled a “comic waiter” who entertained patrons of another popular rooftop destination, The Cascades atop the Strand:

CASCADES…A 1920s postcard image of the Strand’s rooftop dining room, known as “The Cascades.” The room once featured a comical waiter who entertained diners with various gags and pratfalls. (thejumpingfrog.com)

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The June 30 issue featured a Profile of cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, who began her cosmetics empire with a dozen jars of face cream. Writer Jo Sterling described a businesswoman of limitless energy whose habits could be described as restless and haphazard but also revealed a woman of great generosity. Sterling noted that this woman of great wealth and a renowned collector of fine art and other rare objects preferred riding the bus to owning an automobile.

IT STARTED WITH A DOZEN JARS OF FACE CREAM…Polish American businesswoman, art collector, and philanthropist Helena Rubenstein in the 1920s. (Getty)

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Portents of War (to be continued…)

In the Roaring Twenties most believed the Great War was indeed the “War to End All Wars,” so when militarism was clearly on the rise in Shōwa Japan few took it seriously, including New Yorker cartoonist Al Fruh:

On the lighter side, Peter Arno offered up his take on a cinematic love scene:

Next Time: A Familiar Ring…