Social Errors

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Dec. 19, 1925 cover by Julian de Miskey

In my previous post, I hinted that “social errors” would be the topic of this entry, and in a sense that title describes the stance New Yorker editors were taking toward the continued demolition and remodeling of old city landmarks.

“The Talk of the Town” reported that two more Fifth Avenue mansions on “Millionaries Row” were soon to be demolished: the Brokaw and Yerkes mansions (the photo at the top of this entry depicts workmen taking a sledgehammer to a chimney atop the Brokaw house–not in 1925, but in 1965–more on that later).

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The Isaac Brokaw mansion at 79th and 5th Avenue, completed in 1890. Behind the mansion are the twin residences of two Brokaw sons, Howard and Irving. Daughter Elvira would also erect a residence next door. Although the Dec. 19, 1925 edition of The New Yorker lamented the imminent destruction of the house, it would actually stand another 40 years. (Library of Congress)
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The Yerkes Mansion, erected in 1896, would not be so fortunate…it would fall to the wrecking ball in 1926. (Collection of Charles T. Yerkes)

In his excellent blog site, Dayton in Manhattan, Tom Miller writes that the Isaac Brokaw mansion first faced the wrecking ball after Isaac’s eldest son, George, moved out in 1925. George “intensely disliked the house” because of its size and maintenance costs, and petitioned the courts to allow him to mortgage the property for $800,000 and use the money to demolish the mansion and erect a modern apartment house.

His brother, Howard, blocked the move. Three years later, the court ruled that the house could not be sold nor razed without the mutual agreement of all the Brokaw siblings, so George moved back in.

George died seven years later of a heart attack. His wife, Frances Ford Seymour would marry Henry Fonda a year later and have two children, Jane and Peter (George was married twice, the first time to Clare Boothe, who would later become Clare Boothe Luce).

The mansion was then occupied as offices for the Institute of Radio Engineers. When it was announced in 1965 that the mansion (and the adjacent mansions of the Brokaw children) were to be demolished to make way for a high-rise apartment building, there was an outcry from members of the city’s nascent Landmarks Preservation Commission, still stinging from the destruction of Penn Station. Miller writes that demolition workers were paid overtime to begin immediate destruction of the mansions in order to preclude the possibility of a court order to stop the work.

The Yerkes mansion, on the other hand, disappeared rather unceremoniously. According to Miller, a neighbor, Thomas Fortune Ryan, bought the house in 1925 and tore it down in order to enlarge his flower garden. In 1937 an apartment building was erected on the site. I recommend that you check out Miller’s entertaining and informative posts on both the Brokaw and Yerkes mansions.

The Dec. 19 issue also featured a column by Gilbert Seldes titled “Complaint.” Seldes bemoaned the remodeling of “sober, decent” brownstones at Fiftieth Street and beyond (Beekman Place) into overly ornamented facades favored by the Babbitt set:

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A remodeled brownstone at No. 41 E. 67th Street. Note the original brownstone next door. (Museum of the City of New York)

With the much-publicized signing of famed halfback Red Grange to the Chicago Bears (a $100,000 annual contract), the professionalization of football and the money attached to it were frequent topics in the magazine. Howard Brubaker, in “Of All Things,” noted:

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And in this illustration by Johan Bull, Grange is depicted carrying a large money bag at New York’s annual Christmas Bazaar:

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“Profiles” looked at the life of pianist and composer Leo Ornstein, noted for performing and composing avant-garde works. Ornstein would have a long career, completing his eighth and final piano sonata at the age of 97. He died in 2002 at age 108.

The Marx Brothers’s broadway musical The Cocoanuts wowed audiences (and New Yorker theatre critic Herman J. Mankiewicz) at the Lyric Theatre:

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In her Paris Letter, Janet Flanner announced the deaths of “two great servers of the French palate”—Emile Pruinier (famed for his Portuguese oysters) and Mother Soret of Lyons, who “died with a knife in her hand” and whose death was “solemnly listed in Comoedia as that of an artist.”

And to stay in the spirit of the holidays, this Christmas advertisement from the back cover:

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Next Time: We Ring Out the Year…

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Why We Go To Cabarets

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Nov. 28, 1925 cover art by H.O. Hofman.

If you are looking for a watershed moment in the history of The New Yorker, this is one of them. The issue of Nov. 28, 1925, featured an article written by 22-year-old Ellin Mackay titled “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.”

Mackay was the daughter of a Catholic multi-millionaire, Clarence McKay, who was threatening to disinherit his daughter because of her romance with Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Mackay’s essay explained why modern women were abandoning the forced social matchmaking of débutante balls in favor of the more egalitarian (and fun-loving) night club scene:

At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret…What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.

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MAKING MUSIC TOGETHER…Irving Berlin and Ellen Mackay Berlin return from their Atlantic City honeymoon. They were married on Jan. 4, 1926, in New York Municipal Court, a union that lasted 62 years. (NY DAILY NEWS ARCHIVE / GETTY)

Mackay’s piece provided a huge boost to The New Yorker’s circulation, which had dipped below a death-rattle low of 3,000 in August 1925 before it rebounded a bit with new and more aggressive advertising and marketing strategies.

The “Debutante” article was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and was also covered on the front pages of other New York newspapers and even in papers across the country. By the end of the year circulation of The New Yorker neared 30,000.

TIME magazine later observed that with the Mackay piece, The New Yorker “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society.  Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”

In The New Yorker’s 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier wrote about the “débutante to the rescue in the Harold Ross era…”

Sometime during the magazine’s early months, Alice Duer Miller gave him (Ross) Ellin Mackay’s “Cabarets” essay. Jane Grant recalled that Ross kept it at the bottom of the pile of manuscripts he brought home, procrastinating because he liked Ellin and expected he would have to reject it, as he often did with others. Grant urged him to run the piece. “It will make wonderful publicity,” she said. Alexander Woollcott, the Times drama critic, with whom the Rosses shared a house…also championed Ellin’s piece. Woollcott knew her through Berlin, whose worshipful biography he had written.

Frazier writes, “In 1,076 words, the “Cabarets” essay had hit precisely the sophisticated young night-club-going, speakeasy-patronizing, up-and-coming, unimpressed-by-their-elders readership Ross was aiming for. The grateful editor gave Ellin Mackay a lifetime subscription to the magazine.” You can read Frazier’s entire article about Mackay and Berlin here.

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Mackay and Berlin pose for Cecil Beaton in the June 1930 Vanity Fair. (LIVEJOURNAL)

Mackay, who would publish several novels, would marry Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. The marriage would last until her death in 1988 at age 85. Berlin would die the following year at age 101.

Here is Mackay’s full article:

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*  *  *

Even as one grand house after another fell to the wrecking ball along “Millionaires Row,” it was hard to believe that the Vanderbilt Mansion between 57th & 58th Streets would also succumb to the commercial interests transforming Fifth Avenue seemingly overnight.

“The Talk of the Town” noted that the doomed mansion, once the largest private home in New York City, was being descended upon by all manner of curiosity seekers:

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According to writer Adrian Dannatt, the 130-room, full-scale Renaissance-style château was “originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladies in-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight.”

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A photo of the 58th Street side of the house, taken shortly before the house was sold for $7.1 million, demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman store. (newyorksocialdiary.com)

This grand pile was designed by George B. Post in 1882, with interior design by John LaFarge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens among others. Post, along with Richard Morris Hunt, substantially expanded the house in 1893. Demolished in 1926, Bergdorf Goodman Department Store now occupies the site.

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Opened in 1928, the Bergdorf Goodman store occupies the Vanderbilt site today. (Wikipedia)

According to Benjamin Waldman, writing for untappedcities.com, a few remnants from the mansion weren’t reduced to dust, including a pair of monumental gates relocated to Central Park and two of six bas-relief sculptures by Karl Bitter that were relocated to the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Apparently the other four disappeared without a trace.

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REMNANT…Caryatid-flanked fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a LaFarge mosaic, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum)

A fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a John LaFarge mosaic, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is displayed in the courtyard of the museum’s American Wing.

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EPIC…In 1923 Cecil. B. DeMille built the largest set in movie history near Guadalupe, California, for his silent epic, The Ten Commandments. (Santa Barbara Historical Museum)

“Profiles” looked at the life and work of movie director Cecil B. De Mille. R. E. Sherwood wrote that De Mille was the “archetype of the motion picture director—a composite photograph of all the Olympian gods who have descended from Mount Hollywood to dominate the earth.”

Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) reviewed John Dos Passos’ new novel, Manhattan Transfer, and noted that Dos Passos’ version of Manhattan was “not the hypothetical typical New Yorker reader’s, but as far as this department knows, it is very much like the real, complete thing—which is to say, like a hell of chaotic futility.”

In “Sports of the Week,” football continued to dominate the column, with a report on Harvard and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie.

With this issue, “Motion Pictures” was moved from the “Critique” section and given its own page under the Johan Bull-illustrated heading “The Current Cinema.” Theodore Shane wrote that he found Laurence Stalling’s The Big Parade “utterly satisfying,” but he was less impressed with the much-hyped Stella Dallas, which he viewed as a contrived weeper designed to draw lovers of such fare to the box office.

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BOO HOO…Belle Bennett and Lois Moran in Stella Dallas, 1925 (Yam Mag)

Near the back of the magazine the editors printed an exhaustive list of prices on the bootleg liquor market. The prices are quite astonishing, given that $50 in 1925 would be the equivalent of roughly $675 today, based on inflation. Of course that number could vary depending on all sorts of other economic and historic factors, but nevertheless fascinating reading if you are into that sort of thing:

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At the conclusion of “The Talk of the Town,” the editors offered this qualifying note regarding their liquor market list:

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Next Time: Courtin’ and Sparkin’…

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The Banqueting Wars

“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.

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April 25, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:

True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.

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Tom Mix and Victoria Forde (listal.com)
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Pola Negri

In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.

As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:

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Gloria Swanson (United Artists)

The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.

“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”

April 8, 1925 NYT
April 8, 1925, New York Times

Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”

When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on “Millionaires Row” (nyc-architecture.com)

Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).

The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.

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“Profile” illustration

“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”

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Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good (nickelinthemachine)

Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).

And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of  “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”

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Swanson and Émile Drain (as Napoleon) in Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.

Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.

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Al Schacht and Nick Altrock in 1925 (Library of Congress)