Through a Glass Darkly

Anticipated in science fiction in the early 20th century, television was one of those signifiers of a better life in the future, and the popular press drove home that message with its breathless reporting on the latest advancements. E.B. White, on the other hand, found the latest experiment in television to be less than thrilling, maintaining prescience of mind to see things as they were, and what they might become.

Oct. 31, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

In “The Talk of the Town” White wrote about the unusual demonstration of television to an audience in the B.S. Moss playhouse. They were treated to a broadcast from the Guild Theatre, just one block away.

…now to the popular press, the demonstration — contrary to White’s account — was a wonder to behold:

Modern Mechanics magazine, January 1932.

The actual product, however, had a long way to go…

CAN YOU SEE ME NOW?…Top row, left to right, British adventurer Carveth Wells and actresses Theresa Helburn and Margaret Barker did their best to entertain audiences a block away via a television broadcast, but the results were more like the images on the bottom row, especially the one at right. (

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Comeback Kid

Not well known today, but in the early 20th century Maude Adams (1872-1953) was a household name; her touring productions beginning around the turn of the century made her the most popular actress in America, and she sealed that deal in 1905 when she played Peter Pan on Broadway to great acclaim. Her success continued until 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic nearly claimed her life. After recovering from the illness she retired from acting and turned her attention to making improvements in electric lighting, creating an industry standard for both stage and film. When she returned to acting in 1931, it was big news, and “The Talk of the Town” was there to tell us about it. Excerpts:

STAGING A COMEBACK…Maude Adams, left, circa 1897. At right, Adams portrayed Portia in her 1931 production of The Merchant of Venice, with Otis Skinner, who portrayed Shylock. (Pinterest/Bookmice)

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Rags to Rags

The New Yorker departed from its usual profiles of the rich, powerful and/or famous and focused instead on a “Bowery Bum” named John McGoorty. Also unusual was the profile’s author, Russel Crouse, better known then and now and as an American playwright and librettist. Appropriately, Reginald Marsh lent his “Ashcan School” style to the illustration. Here are some excerpts:

NOT MUCH TO SMILE ABOUT…Berenice Abbott photograph of a Bowery restaurant in 1935, when the street was lined with flophouses. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with some lovely color ads…the makers of the gasoline additive Ethyl (active ingredient, lead) continued their series of nature-themed ads…

…while Budweiser, perhaps anticipating the end of Prohibition, reminded readers of the refreshing flavor of its beer, even if it was non-alcoholic…

…R.J. Reynolds reminded women smokers that their Camel cigarettes left no after-taste…

…while Lorillard went a step further and claimed its Old Gold brand made a smoker downright kissable…

…the makers of Pepperell Peeress sheets and pillowcases offered this “Talk of the Town” parody to promote their wares…

…illustrator Frank McIntosh, known for his Art Deco travel drawings, (and who contributed just four drawings to the New Yorker), gave us this stylish illustration for Guillaume Lenthéric’s famed parfums

New Yorker cartoonist/illustrator H.O. Hofman contributed this drawing on behalf of the Artists and Writers Guild, offering their designer bridge cards…

…and speaking of bridge, we have Alan Dunn opening our cartoons…

…and in a less refined setting, we have this from Raymond Thayer, another contributor of just four drawings to the New Yorker…

…and this entry from Carl Rose reminds us of where we are in history, namely the Depression…

James Thurber continued his exploration of the mysterious encounters between the sexes…

…and we end with Alice Harvey, and one unlikely play date…

Next Time: The Tragic Pose…

Happy 1929!

I’ve been writing this blog for nearly three years, and during that stretch have managed to cover more than 200 issues of the New Yorker, or about the first four years of the magazine.

Dec. 22, 1928 and Dec. 29, 1928 covers by Rea Irvin.

The amount of young talent on display in those early issues is truly astounding, from writers such as E.B. White, Dorothy Parker and James Thurber (writer and cartoonist) to illustrators and cartoonists including Peter Arno, Rea Irvin, Helen Hokinson, Miguel Covarrubias and Ilonka Karasz, to name just a few. Among the contributing artists was Abe Birnbaum, who illustrated more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to 1970s. One of his earliest contributions to the magazine was this illustration for the “Profile” section in the Dec. 22 issue:

Canadian artist Shelley Davies writes in her blog that Birnbaum “charmingly captured some of life’s quieter moments with a deft eye.” In addition to the New Yorker, Birnbaum illustrated numerous covers for Stage and Arts In America, and won a Caldecott Award in 1954 for his children’s book, Green Eyes.

ON THE QUIETER SIDE…Abe Birnbaum (pictured here circa 1960) created more than 150 covers for the New Yorker from the 1940s to the 1970s. At right, a cover from March 17, 1962. (

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A couple of select advertisements from the Dec. 22 reveal what retailers knew, or thought they knew, about the magazine’s readership. Franklin & Simon, seeking perhaps to broaden their market for furs, suggested that even a stylish French woman might prefer a fur fashioned as a modest “sports wrap”…

…as for the guys, Saks appealed to the anglophilia that apparently was rife among New York’s smart set. Check out the ridiculous hat gracing the noggin of this young dandy…

Well-heeled readers who could afford to flee the New York winter were targeted by these various enticements in the Dec. 22 issue (this is a collage of select ads found in the back pages of the issue):

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Hello Down There

Writing about New Yorker humor derived from class distinctions, Ben Yagoda (About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, p. 63) noted a series of cartoons by Otto Soglow that began with this one in the Dec. 22, 1928 issue and continued through thirty installments that ran to early 1930, when the workers, Joe and Bill, finally emerged from the manhole:

This running gag, according to Yagoda, “came from the conceit that the laborers spoke with the same assumptions and in the same catchphrases as those with ‘higher’ places in society.”

Also from the Dec. 22 issue, this terrific cartoon by Leonard Dove that showed a bookish man who had accidentally entered the wrong type of book-making establishment:

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The Girl Who Wouldn’t Grow Up

Maude Adams was a major Broadway star in the early years of the 20th century. Appearing in more than 25 productions from 1888 to 1916, she was most famous for her portrayal of Peter Pan in the Broadway production of Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. She performed that role first in 1905-06 and again in 1912 and 1915. The highest-paid performer of her day, at her peak she earned more than $1 million a year, a staggering sum more than a century ago. James Thurber, writing in the Dec. 29 “Talk of the Town,” reported that after a decade-long absence from the stage, Adams was planning a comeback as a director:

STAR POWER…At left, American actress Maude Adams, circa 1900. At right, Adams as Peter Pan, her most famous stage role. Adams was the first American to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She played the role 1,500 times between 1905-1915. She retired from the stage in 1918 after a severe bout with the flu. She died at age 80 in 1953. (Wikipedia/Oakland Tribune)

Thurber also noted that Adams was working with General Electric in the development of color photography. According to the Trivia Library, it has been suggested that her motivation might have been a wish to appear in a color film version of Peter Pan. She eventually returned to acting in the 1930s, with occasional appearances in regional productions of Shakespeare plays.

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A Lukewarm Welcome to 1929

The Dec. 29 New Yorker opened with these lamentations for the last issue of 1928. At least it appears that one could obtain a decent bottle of French champagne to toast the New Year:

JAM SESSION…1929 photo of traffic on Fifth Avenue. (

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The Passing of a Poet

The Dec. 29 issue featured something unprecedented in the New Yorker up to that point: the reprinting of an entire piece previously featured in the magazine. In this case, it was in tribute to the sudden passing of poet and author Elinor Wylie:

PORTRAITS…Elinor Wylie posed for her friend Carl Van Vechten in this 1922 portrait (left). The photo at right, probably taken around 1926, was clearly the inspiration for the illustration by Peter Arno that accompanied “Portrait.” (Yale University/

It is no wonder that the New Yorker had such affection for Wylie, for she was as colorful a personality as could be found in 1920s literary circles. A Columbia University Press bio notes that “she was famous during her life almost as much for her ethereal beauty and personality as for her melodious, sensuous poetry.” Born to a socially prominent family and trained for a life in society, she instead became notorious for her multiple marriages and love affairs. She also suffered from extremely high blood pressure that gave her unbearable migraines.

Wylie died on Dec. 16, 1928, while going over a typescript of her poetry collection, Angels and Earthly Creatures, with her estranged third husband, William Rose Benét. According to Karen Stein (in the Dictionary of Literary Biography), Wylie, while picking up a volume of John Donne’s poems, asked Benét for a glass of water. When he returned with it, she reportedly walked toward him and murmured, “Is that all it is?,” and fell to the floor, dead of a stroke. She was 43.

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Age of Innocence

The Dec. 29 theatre review section featured this illustration by Al Frueh of Katharine Cornell in the Empire Theatre’s production of The Age of Innocence:

And below, a studio portrait of Cornell from the same play:

HOW SHE REALLY LOOKED…Katharine Cornell as ‘Countess Ellen Olenska’ in this Vandamm Studio portrait dated November 27, 1928. (Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library)

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Before Baby Snooks

Although it was still a few years before singer and actress Fanny Brice would make her radio debut as the bratty toddler named “Snooks,” she was already well-known to New York audiences for her work in the Ziegfeld Follies (beginning in 1910). In its Dec. 29 issue the New Yorker favorably reviewed Brice’s first motion picture, My Man, which included musical scenes with Vitaphone sound:

MY MAN…Fanny Brice, Guinn Williams, and Edna Murphy on the set of the partially silent film My Man, 1928. Her first movie appearance, Brice played Fanny Brand, a poor girl who becomes a star. The film is now considered lost, since only an incomplete version survives. (
THROUGH THE YEARS…At left, singer and actress Fanny Brice from the time she was a Ziegfeld Follies girl, circa 1915. At right, Brice in the role of Baby Snooks, 1940. (Vintage Everyday/Wikipedia)

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Let’s Get Physical

Even 90 years ago some folks (or at least some New Yorkers) resolved to get healthy and hit the gym in the New Year. In this ad, McGovern’s Gymnasium announced it was ready for them:

Babe Ruth trains at Artie McGovern’s Gym in NYC for the upcoming baseball season, February 9, 1928. (

And to close out 1928, a cartoon from John Reehill

Next Time: Out With the Old…