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.
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…
Sufficiently appalled by the fashion scene, Long then offered some advice for those seeking a smarter look in the southern climes…
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:
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:
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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:
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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:
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…and back to the cold New York City winter, with Leonard Dove …
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’sMidnight Frolic.
The New Yorker’sLois 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:
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:
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:
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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):
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Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…
The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:
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:
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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:
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…
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.
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).
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…
…and the New Yorker’sJames 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…
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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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:
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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.
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:
“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:
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:
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:
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:
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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:
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.
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:
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.”
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:
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.
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:
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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…
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.
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:
Illustrations by Alice Harvey (in the July 7, 1928 issue) depicted diners and dancers on the St. Regis rooftop…
Long also fondly recalled a “comic waiter” who entertained patrons of another popular rooftop destination, The Cascades atop the Strand:
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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.
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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:
Broadway shows were a popular nightlife diversion for New York’s upper middle-class, but plays and musicals were only part of an evening’s entertainment. The city’s “after theatre” clubs beckoned those who enjoyed an evening of dance with the Astaires or a light comedy with Lunt and Fontanne, but believed the night was still young.
And who better to chronicle the late night revelry than Lois Long, who through her “Tables For Two” column (signed “Lipstick”) was a leading voice of after hours Manhattan and a nightly presence in its various clubs and speakeasies. Longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (Here at the New Yorker) observed that Long, who joined the New Yorker in 1925, “had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play — a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”
In May 1928 Long had been married for about nine months to colleague and cartoonist Peter Arno, who was also a regular fixture of the nightclub scene. But in Long’s column for May 5, 1928, one can detect a bit of weariness setting in, the 27-year-old sensing the next generation didn’t know how to have a good time.
And it didn’t help that the younger people were dancing to “canned music,” what with the spread of broadcast radio and improvements in phonograph records…
For those on the wilder side, Lois Long recommended a number of after-hours entertainments, including Texas Guinan’s latest all-night club, Salon Royal, and its snake-charming hootch dancer.
Because so many New Yorker readers were both theatre and after-theatre-goers, the magazine included some of the after-dinner destinations in its “Goings On About Town” section. Excerpts follow.
A May 5 “Talk of the Town” segment (written by James Thurber) commented on the challenges film crews faced when they shot on location in the city, in this case the production of Harold Lloyd’s latest comedy, Speedy:
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Before Mommie Dearest
The actress Joan Crawford is best known today as the subject of the 1981 biopic, Mommie Dearest, which portrayed Crawford as an insecure, abusive parent to her adopted daughter Christina (the film was based on a 1978 memoir and exposé of the same name written by Christina Crawford).
But in the 1920s and 30s the former dancer and chorus girl was better known for her sex appeal, attractive to men for her looks and to women for the roles in which she portrayed hard-working women who find both romance and success.
The New Yorker took notice of Crawford in its review of Across to Singapore, the critic O.C. noting that Crawford “gets prettier in every picture”…
Another film released later in 1928, Our Dancing Daughters, would make Crawford a star and a symbol of the liberated, 1920s flapper. Even the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would observe that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”
Another actress with a talent for living was 34-year-old Mae West, who was appearing on Broadway in Diamond Lil. Already a 21-year veteran of the stage (she began performing in vaudeville in 1907 at age 14), West was known for writing and performing in risqué plays beginning in 1926, when she appeared in Sex, which was panned by conservative critics but enjoyed hot ticket sales.
Subsequent plays aroused controversy and kept her name in the newspapers, but her play Diamond Lil would become the Broadway hit that would cement her image as a sex symbol, one she would maintain until her death at age 87 in 1980. In the May 5 issue artist Miguel Covarrubias offered his vision of the Queen of the Bowery:
From Our Advertisers
It’s interesting to see how 1920s advertisers made even the most mundane gadgets appear to be vital to one’s survival. The ad for the “Sesamee” auto switch lock is a case in point, appealing to upscale female readers of the New Yorker with this odd scenario in which the gadget enables the driver to avoid the awkward and potentially hazardous situation depicted below, although it hard to see what the actual threat might be from a dandy in a tie and waistcoat. Perhaps death from boredom.
Our cartoon is courtesy of Mary Petty, who would become a renowned illustrator for the New Yorker, best remembered for a series of covers featuring her gentle satirization of the upper class Peabody family.
Perhaps no other hairstyle has a stronger link to a historical period than the “bob cut,” associated not only with the flapper lifestyle in the 1920s but with women in general who wished to signal their independence from old cultural norms that defined femininity.
Women in Western cultures typically wore their hair long, but in the early years of the 20th century a few women of prominence began to flout convention and wear their hair in a bobbed style, including French actress Polaire, who began wearing her hair short in the 1890s; English socialite Lady Diana Cooper, who wore her hair short as a child and continued to do so as an adult; and dancer Irene Castle, who unveiled her “Castle Bob” to Americans in 1915. By 1920 the style was all the rage.
Another famous bobbed flapper of the 1920s was the New Yorker‘s own Lois Long, who wrote under the pseudonym “Lipstick” for her nightlife column “Tables For Two,” but signed her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) with a simple “L.L.” Long was also a regular unsigned contributor to “The Talk of the Town,” and is credited as one the New Yorker’s early writers who gave the magazine its “voice.”
In the March 10, 1928 issue Long wrote in “On and Off the Avenue” about the challenges in maintaining her bobbed hairstyle:
Many women in the 1920s preferred to have a permanent wave treatment applied to their bob, which usually involved the application of high heat via a complex array of wires and hot rollers. In the March 10 issue, this ad promoted an alternative “cool method”…
…and in the March 17, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, the Ace Comb company made a pitch to improve its market share by touting their hard rubber combs as ideal for the “ragged bob”…
…and for some further context on all things bobbed, following are some images gleaned from glamourdaze.com, including a page from a 1920s movie magazine featuring Paramount’s bobbed stars; a 1920s salon advertisement promoting bobs for all ages; and finally, a helpful reference card from the American Hairdresser, circa 1924…
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A New Plot for Billy Haines
William “Billy” Haines was a number one male box office draw in the 1920s, and throughout the decade was typecast in a number of comic roles as a conceited baseball player (Slide, Kelly, Slide), conceited cadet (West Point), conceited football star (Brown of Harvard), conceited golfer (Spring Fever), and conceited polo player (The Smart Set). It was that last picture that left the New Yorker wanting Haines to consider taking a different approach in his next picture:
Haines would eventually escape being typecast as a wisecracking, arrogant leading man, not by choosing different roles but by quitting acting altogether in 1935. The head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, had demanded Haines deny his gay lifestyle (which he had lived quite openly despite the times) and marry a woman for appearances. Haines went on to become a successful interior designer, with clients ranging from Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
In our featured cartoon from March 10, 1928, Helen Hokinson spies on her famous spinsters passing the time with a Ouija board: