Hello Molly

While the New Yorker was happy to send singer Marion Talley packing back to Midwest (see last post), it was wholly embracing one of its own, Molly Picon. But as we will see, it had every reason to do so.

April 27, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The daughter of Polish immigrants, Molly Picon (1898-1992) was born Małka Opiekun in New York City on Feb. 28, 1898, and became of a star of Yiddish theatre and film before moving to English language productions in the 1930s.

Writing in “The Talk of the Town,” James Thurber described Picon as an “idol of the East Side”…

PRECOCIOUS…Molly Picon began performing in the Yiddish Theatre at age six. Pictured, from left, is 10-year-old Molly in a 1908 Nickelodeon short of a vaudeville act, Fagan’s Decision; an undated press photo; in The Jolly Orphan, 1929. (Jewish Women’s Archive/Wikipedia/Museum of the City of New York)
At left, music sung by Molly Picot in the a Yiddish theatre production, Tsirkus meydl (The Circus Girl), 1928. At right, a scene from the play. (Museum of the City of New York)
PUT ‘EM UP…Molly Picot tries her hand at boxing in the silent comedy, East and West, originally produced in Austria in 1923. In this film about assimilation and Jewish values, a sophisticated New Yorker travels back to his village to attend his niece’s traditional wedding. There he encounters the rambunctious Molly, whose hijinks include boxing, and teaching other young villagers to shimmy. (Image: National Center for Jewish Film / Caption: UC Berkeley Library)

Thurber described Picon’s personal life as simple and focused on her family, a path she followed throughout her 94 years:

Picon met her husband, Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich (1891-1975) in 1918 and they married a year later. In an exhibition at the American Jewish Historical Society, Picon is quoted on how meeting Kalich changed her life:

“When we met in Boston, I was the All-American Girl full of hurdy-gurdys and absolutely illiterate about Jewish culture. Yonkel, on the other hand, was the complete intellectual who knew not only classic Yiddish but its plays, theater and writers.”

After they married in 1919, the couple toured Eastern European cities with large Jewish populations in order that she could improve her Yiddish and gain experience as a performer. Kalich served as her manager and creator of many of her roles, and they often performed together, including in two films nearly 50 years apart—East and West (1923) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971).

Top photos, left to right, Molly Picon in the Yiddish Theatre comedy Di Tsvey Kuni Lemels (The Two Kuni Lemels), 1926; with husband Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich in the 1923 silent film comedy, East and West; with Kalich that same year in Vienna. Bottom row, left to right, Picon tapes the Maxwell House Radio Show, 1938, and below, on the set of the Fiddler on the Roof (1971) with husband Jacob “Yonkel” Kalich; with Frank Sinatra in Come Blow Your Horn (1963); and on the TV show The Facts of Life (1979). (Wikimedia Commons/American Jewish Historical Society/Jewish Women’s Archive/Getty)

Picon appeared on a variety of TV shows from the 1960s through the 1980s including Car 54, Where Are You?, Gomer Pyle, The Facts of Life, and Trapper John M.D. Movie appearances during that time included Fiddler on the Roof (1971); For Pete’s Sake (with Barbra Streisand, 1974); and perhaps one of her oddest roles, as Roger Moore’s longsuffering mother in The Cannonball Run (1981) and 1984’s The Cannonball Run II (In those films, Moore portrayed Seymour Goldfarb, heir to the Goldfarb Girdles fortune, who preferred the life of pretending to be a spy to girdle manufacturing).

Thurber observed that Picon was only interested in comedic roles, a preference she stuck to throughout her long career.

Molly Picon as Mrs. Bronson in the television show Car 54, Where Are You? (1962) (Wikimedia Commons)

To learn more about Molly Picon’s fascinating life, visit the online exhibition at the American Jewish Historical Society.

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Sober as a Judge

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in New York in the late 1920s thanks to bootleggers and corrupt cops. U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt tried her best to crack down on violations, arresting (among many others) the operators of two of Manhattan’s most popular nightclubs, actress Texas Guinan (300 Club) and torch singer Helen Morgan (Chez Morgan). In the “Talk of the Town,” the New Yorker found hope in the acquittal of Guinan and Morgan, and in the opinion of one of the jurors:

OFF THE HOOK…U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt (left) tried her best to crack down on New York’s lackadaisical enforcement of Prohibition laws, but failed to convict two of its most celebrated violators—actress Texas Guinan (center) and torch singer Helen Morgan. (Library of Congress/Getty/http:/kickintina.blogspot.com)

In the same issue, this cartoon by Oscar Howard tells us a lot about New York’s approach to Prohibition enforcement in 1929…

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Captive Audience

In the April 27 “Talk of the Town” Thurber also turned his attention to the latest treacle flowing out of Hollywood—the premiere of The Rainbow Man, starring Eddie Dowling in his first talking picture. Thurber found the film to be “alarmingly bad.” But that was only the beginning…

TIRED OF ME YET?…Lloyd Ingraham, Eddie Dowling, and Marian Nixon in The Rainbow Man (1929) (IMDB)

Thurber wrote that the film was followed by live performances from “a Kate Smith” and by Eddie Dowling himself, who piled more ham on the proceedings.

PILING IT ON…Eddie Dowling gave audiences more than they needed (at least in the view of James Thurber) at the premiere of The Rainbow Man. Dowling would share the stage with Kate Smith, apparently unknown to Thurber at that time. She would go on to massive stardom. Dowling, not so much. (IMDB/Pinterest)

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Slow Man River

Things didn’t look much better in the magazine’s movie review section, where the 1929 film version of the huge 1927 Broadway hit musical Showboat seemed stuck on sandbar:

SLOW BOAT…Scene from the 1929 film Show Boat featuring Laura LaPlante as Magnolia Hawks and Joseph Schildkraut as Gaylord Ravenal. (Wikipedia)

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Elsie Dinsmore Revisited

Phyllis Crawford (writing under the pseudonym Josie Turner) contributed another parody of the Elsie Dinsmore book series. The original books (28 in all), were written in the late 19th and early 20th century and featured an impossibly upright eight-year-old as the main character.

Crawford, herself an author of children’s books (including the award-winning Hello, the Boat!), had some fun with the Dinsmore books, her parody featuring a still pious and innocent Elsie living with her father in New York, where she encounters his circle of friends including gamblers and chorus girls (the collected pieces were published as a book in 1930: Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose). In this brief excerpt from Crawford’s piece in the April 27 issue (“Elsie Dinsmore Entertains at Tea”), little Elsie tries her best to entertain a friend of her “dear Papa”…

On the topic of books, Dorothy Parker, in her “Reading and Writing” column, took aim at middlebrow book clubs such as the Literary Guild, expressing (in her way) surprise that such a club would actually recommend something with literary merit…

Advertisement in the April 27 issue for Ring Lardner’s Round Up. At right, Lardner and Dorothy Parker, circa 1930. (thenationalpastimemuseum.com/selectedshorts.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with a colorful ad from the makers B.V.D., a brand name that would become synonymous with men’s underwear…

…Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova demonstrated the wonders of Cutex nail polish in her famous “Dying Swan” costume (Pavlova would be dead herself in less than two years)…

…while the Wizard of Menlo Park applied his genius to the cause for better toast…

…and actor John Gilbert was the latest actor to “reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet”…

…this ad in the back pages enticed readers to visit the International Exposition of Barcelona…those fortunate enough to have made the trip would have seen Mies Van Der Rohe’s “Barcelona House” (pictured) and the first-ever Barcelona chair…

(thomortiz.tumblr.com)

…on to cartoons and illustrations, in the theatre section this contribution by Miguel Covarrubias

…Covarrubias (pictured) was an early contributor to the New Yorker, indeed he contributed to the very first issue with this rendering of Italian opera manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza for the first-ever profile…

Gluyas Williams illustrated the collective shaming of a commuter by residents of Tudor City…

…Tudor City was touted in many early New Yorker ads as having all the amenities of the suburbs but within walking distance of the city…here is an ad from the March 26, 1927 issue of the New Yorker

…and then we have the English cartoonist Leonard Dove, who looks in on a couple who are obviously not from Tudor City…

…and finally, a terrific cartoon by an artist I have failed to identify (if anyone knows, please comment!)…

Next Time: Broadway Goes Hollywood…

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…