Flying the Friendly Skies

A few posts ago (the April 11 issue) I wrote about E.B. White’s love of flying, and how his (and the nation’s) exuberance for aviation suddenly came crashing down along with Knute Rockne’s plane in a Kansas wheat field.

May 23, 1931 cover by Garrett Price.

The death of the famed Notre Dame football coach had White pondering a new, safer path for aviation that seemed to be embodied in a contraption called the autogiro. White had previously written about the potential of the autogiro back in 1929 (Dec. 7 issue). Half-helicopter and half-airplane, it was considered not only safer, but easier to fly, possibly opening up the sky to everyday commuters.

PHOTO OP…A Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro paid a visit to the White House on April 22, 1931. President Herbert Hoover is second from left. (Library of Congress)

On a windy day White boarded the autogiro at an airport “in awful Queens” — most likely the current site of La Guardia — and filed this report for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

In the article, White referenced this Pitcairn Autogiro ad from the April 25, 1931 issue. No doubt the folks at Pitcairn had the Rockne accident in mind when they touted the safety of their craft, which seemed impossible to crash.

White wasn’t the only one enthused about the autogiro. It was the darling of modernist architects and futurists of 1920s and 30s, who saw the flying machine taking its place alongside the automobile in the house of the future.

SWEET…The Swiss-born architect and designer William Lescaze rendered this “House of the Future” in the late 1920s with a bullet-shaped motorcar in the carport and an autogiro perched on the roof. (From blog author’s collection)
COMMONPLACE, AT LEAST IN THE IMAGINATION…The autogiro appealed to the average Joe or Jill as well, featured in magazines such as the U.K.’s Practical Mechanics (June 1934) and Meccano Magazine (May 1931). At center, a Pitcairn ad from 1930. (vtol.org)
WELL, IT WORKED…This two-seat AC-35 Autogiro (left) was developed for a Department of Commerce competition to create an “Aerial Model T.” James G. Ray, vice president and chief pilot of the Autogiro Company of America, landed the AC-35 in a small downtown park in Washington. D.C. on Oct. 2, 1936; at right, a still image from a 1936 film, Things to Come, which showed people of the year 2036 getting around in autogiros while wearing groovy futuristic togas. (Smithsonian/gutenberg.net.au)

Prompted by a New York Times editorial, White pondered the day when the air would be thick with personal aircraft:

AND THEY LAND WHERE?…The idea of city skies filled with flying commuters is nothing new, as this 1911 illustration by Richard Rummell from King’s Views of New York attests. (The Guardian)

White offered still more observations on aviation safety in his “Notes and Comment” column…

…and in the same column he also pondered the future in terms of his infant son, Joel White:

Sadly, Joel didn’t quite make it to the turn of the century — he died in 1997. He did, however, have a successful life as a noted naval architect and founder of the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.

ON GOLDEN POND…Joel White took to the water at a very young age, seen at left rowing a boat in an image from a home movie by E.B. and Katharine White; at right, Joel in his design office at the Brooklin Boat Yard, which he founded in 1960. (E.B. White Collection, Northeast Historic Film/Billy Black)

One more from E.B. White, this the lead item for his column which made jest of a debate at Yale over dropping the requirement for Latin. It says something to the effect that “Yale’s lead on the issue frees the rest of us to follow our fiduciary duty, toss tradition into the fire, and focus on practical matters such as traffic studies.” Latin students, please forgive me, and if someone can offer a better interpretation, please let me know.

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Dawn “Ring-Lit” cigarettes seemed to have a winner on their hands with a smoke you could light like a match, but I can’t find any record of the company. Most likely this was a local brand sold at nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, and not through retail…

…Murad, on the other hand, was widely available, but the brand faded as tastes moved away from Turkish-style cigarettes…Rea Irvin illustrated a long series of ads for the brand, presenting various “embarrassing moments,” including this familiar trope involving office hijinx…

…summer was on the way, and the makers of Jantzen swimwear were establishing their brand as both the choice for athletes as well as the fashion-conscious…

…and you might have packed a Jantzen or two for this around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain, arranged through Canadian Pacific. Your fare, if you wanted an “apartment with a bath,” would set you back $3,950, or a cool $63,000 in today’s currency…

…if the cruise was too rich for your budget, perhaps you could put your money toward a durable good like a GE all-steel refrigerator. Note how GE contrasted its product with the overly complicated gadgets demonstrated on stage by popular vaudeville comedian Joe Cook

…on to the cartoons, William Steig gave us a glimpse of the important work taking place behind an exec’s closed doors…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on a couple’s travel plans…

Wallace Morgan took us on a trot through Central Park…

Perry Barlow probed labor relations in an estate garden (and a caption with the New Yorker’s signature diaeresis on the word “coöperation”)

…and Carl Kindl gave a look into the latest maneuvers in the canned soup wars…

…and we end our May 23 cartoons on a sad note, with Ralph Barton’s final contribution to the New Yorker, a “Hero of the Week” illustration featuring the Prince of Wales:

On May 19, 1931, Ralph Waldo Emerson Barton, who suffered from severe manic-depression, shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown Manhattan penthouse. He was 39 years old.

From the outside one would have thought Barton had a wonderful life as a successful artist who lived in style, who spent long vacations relaxing in France, and who hobnobbed with celebrities such as his close friend Charlie Chaplin.

To lose a longtime contributor and friend must have been a real blow to the staff at the New Yorker. Barton had been there from the beginning, his name appearing on the magazine’s first masthead as an advisory editor:

He was a prominent contributor to the magazine, from recurring features like his weekly take on the news — “The Graphic Section” — to theatrical caricatures that included clever caption-length reviews. He was married four times in his short life, most notably to actress Carlotta Monterey, his third (he was also her third marriage). She divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929.

In his suicide note, Barton wrote that he had irrevocably lost the only woman he ever loved, referring to Carlotta. But some speculate this claim was a final dramatic flourish, and that the end came because he feared he was on the verge of total insanity. He also wrote in the note: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife and house to house, visited great countries of the world—but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”

A CHARMED, TROUBLED LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Ralph Barton with the love of his life, his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey; Barton with best friend Charlie Chaplin, photographed by Nickolas Muray in 1927; after leaving Barton, Monterey would marry playwright Eugene O’Neill, who in a weird coincidence would become Chaplin’s father-in-law in 1943; a 1922 portrait of Carlotta by Barton; and a self-portrait from 1925, in the style of El Greco. “The human soul would be a hideous object if it were possible to lay it bare,” Barton wrote in 1926. (illustrationart.com/Pinterest/MCNY/curiator.com/npg.si.edu)

The following issue of the New Yorker (May 30, 1931)…

May 30, 1931 cover by Barney Tobey.

…featured this brief obituary on the bottom of page 28. I like this observation from the last line…his work had the rare and discomforting tingle of genius.

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The Gray & The Blue

We are reminded of the span of time and history that separate us from 1931 with this small item in “The Talk of the Town” that notes “fewer than a hundred” Civil War veterans were still alive in New York City. We just marked the 76th anniversary of D-Day, an event still 13 years into the future for this New Yorker writer:

OLD WARRIORS…Union Civil War veterans stand in front a monument at Gettysburg, July 12, 1931. (National Geographic)

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From Our Advertisers

American brewers could sense the tide was turning on Prohibition laws, among them Augustus Busch, who took out a full page ad featuring “An Open Letter to the American People” that suggested a return to beer brewing would help relieve the unemployment situation caused by the Depression — note how the ad featured a variety of non-alcoholic products, but put the alcoholic beer at the head of the line…

…Walking east on 24th Street past Chelsea’s London Terrace and on to Madison Square Park is one of my favorite strolls in Manhattan…there is something almost cozy about walking by this massive building, once the largest apartment house in the world…Electrolux found it impressive enough to pair with their latest model refrigerator…

…a photo of London Terrace I took in December…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Otto Soglow’s Little King…

Richard Decker gave us another familiar comic trope, the postman and the housewife…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on some small talk…

Garrett Price explored the joys of parenthood…

…I’m surprised this got by Harold Ross, who could be a bit of a prude…we close with Peter Arno’s unique take on family life…

Next Time: Rooftop Romance…

A 100 Percent Talker

Lights of New York would be a forgettable film if not for the fact it was the world’s first 100 percent talking motion picture. Yes, it was a bad film, but…

July 14, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

…even the July 14, 1928 New Yorker had the foresight to note that the film was destined to be a “museum piece.” Despite the corny plot and bad acting, the magazine’s critic “O.C.” had to concede that the film offered proof that sound would improve the motion picture experience.

Theatre Card for Lights of New York. (untappedcities.com)
MAKING SOME NOISE…Helene Costello with a cast of nightclub dancers in Lights of New York. (vintage45.wordpress.com)

The Jazz Singer (1927) launched a “talkie revolution” that would culminate nine months later in Lights of New York, and by the end of 1929 Hollywood was almost exclusively making sound films. But studios still released silent films into the 1930s, since not every theatre in the country was wired for sound.

The New Yorker had been slow to embrace sound in motion pictures (see my previous posts). What helped to win them over was the further refinement of the Movietone process, in which the sound track was printed directly onto the film strip (The Jazz Singer used Vitaphone, which essentially synched a record player with a film and provided a sporadic rather than continuous sound track).

In the same issue, writer Robert Benchley also predicted (in “The Talk of the Town”) that sound in movies would challenge actors whose voices weren’t as attractive as their screen images:

IT’S COMPLICATED…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, however big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow left the pictures for other reasons. Studio politics ended Gilbert’s career, and he drank himself to death by 1936. Bow—famously known as the “It Girl,”—made a few sound pictures, but retired from acting in 1931 to become a Nevada rancher. (Wikipedia/NY Post)
SILENCED…Some silent actors such as Wallace Beery (left), were sidelined not because of their voices but because of their high salaries. On the other hand Raymond Griffith (right), who made only one sound movie, spoke with a hoarse whisper not suited for the talkies. (Wikipedia / silentfilmstillarchive.com)

The New Yorker also noted that sound pictures would prove to a great “bonanza” to voice teachers:

Transition to sound in the late 1920s would later provide the theme for the 1952 musical Singin’ In The Rain, in which Jean Hagen portrayed silent film star Lina Lamont, whose voice was ill-suited for talking pictures. 

SAY WHAT?…Actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) tries the patience of her director (Chet Brandenburg) while her co-star (Gene Kelly) looks on. The scene demonstrated the challenges of acclimating former silent stars (like Lina Lamont, whose voice sounded like squeaky hinge) to “talking pictures.” (YouTube Movieclips)

The New Yorker also noted that the advent of sound in motion pictures would put an end to many theatres operating on the vaudeville  circuit:

In his regular column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker gave his two cents about the new world of talking movies:

Paving Over Paradise

In the July 14 “Talk of the Town,” Howard Helm Cushman and James Thurber offered more bittersweet commentary on the city’s rapidly changing landscape. This time it was a famous stretch of lawns on West 23rd Street—London Terrace— that were being uprooted to make way for a massive new apartment block:

According to Tom Miller (writing for his blog Daytonian in Manhattan), Clement Moore, the writer to whom “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (“The Night Before Christmas”) “had developed the block when he divided up his family estate, ‘Chelsea.’ On the 23rd Street block, in 1845, he commissioned Alexander Jackson Davis to design 36 elegant Greek Revival brownstone townhouses. The row was designed to appear as a single, uniform structure or ‘terrace’ (a design not lost on the New Yorker writer). Unusual for Manhattan, each had deep front yards planted with shrubbery and trees. He called his development ‘London Terrace.'”

A BIT O’ GREEN…London Terrace, circa 1920. (ephemeralnewyork)

By October 1929, writes Miller, “a few weeks before the collapse of the stock market and the onset of the Great Depression, (developer Henry Mandel) had acquired and demolished all the structures on the enormous block of land. All except for Tillie Hart’s house. Tillie leased 429 West 23rd Street and, although her lease had legally expired, she refused to leave. Tillie fired a barrage of bricks and rocks at anyone who approached the sole-surviving house. A court battle ensued while she barricaded herself inside. Finally, just four days before Black Tuesday, sheriffs gained entry and moved all of Tillie Hart’s things onto the street. She held out one more night, sleeping on newspapers in her once-grand bedroom, then gave up. The following day her house was destroyed.”

IT’S YUGE…Farrar & Watmough designed this massive, Tuscan-inspired apartment block, completed during 1930-31. The developer Henry Mandel, sometimes referred to as the Donald Trump of his day, kept the site’s original name, London Terrace. (ephemeralnewyork)

Miller writes, “to describe the new London Terrace was to use superlatives. Consuming the entire city block, it was the largest apartment building in the world with 1,665 apartments. It boasted the largest swimming pool in the city – 75 feet by 35 feet, with mosaic walls and viewing balconies. Twenty-one stories above the street a “marine deck” was designed to mimic that of a luxury ocean liner. It had a fully-equipped gymnasium, a recreation club, a rooftop children’s play yard with professional supervisors, and a large dining room. The doormen were dressed as London bobbies.”

STILL THERE…London Terrace today. (Brick Underground)

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In other diversions, I. Klein looked askew at the latest headlines, namely the big fight between Gene Tunney and Tom Heeney, one of the 20th century’s many “battles of the century”…

…while Helen Hokinson, on the other hand, offered some sketches of seafaring life…

…and looked in on the challenges of buying a hat…

…and then there was this two-page cartoon by Al Frueh, and its disturbing depiction of African “savages” (rendered in blackface?!)…click to enlarge

And to close, a cartoon by Leonard Dove…

…that referenced ads such as this one from the June 2, 1928 issue of the New Yorker… (click image to enlarge).

…and a comedy of manners, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Beyond 96th Street…