As Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald spoke to the “Lost Generation” of writers and artists in the 1920s, John Dos Passos (1896-1970) drew upon the ethos of that period to usher in a new style of writing for the 1930s — modern, experimental, and deeply pessimistic.
Dos Passos’ book The 42nd Parallel would be the first of three books from 1930 to 1936 that would comprise his landmark U.S.A. Trilogy. The book critic for the New Yorker (identified as “A.W.S.”) sensed that this work of avant-garde historical fiction represented a significant marker in the modernist movement, likening it to the work of the great 20th century composer Igor Stravinsky:
Dos Passos also painted throughout his life, nearly 600 canvases including this early work from his days in Spain in the 1920s…
…and he joined his literary and artistic talents in 1931 when he translated and illustrated Blaise Cendrars’ long poem Le Panama et Mes Sept Oncles. Dos Passos became good friends with Cendrars, and in the book’s foreword acknowledged his debt as a writer to the French poet…
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Don Could Also Write And Draw
Like Dos Passos, Don Herold (1889-1966) could express himself through both words and pictures, albeit in a much less serious vein. In the March 8 issue Herold wrote about the indignity of having to disrobe for a medical examination. An excerpt:
Also an illustrator and cartoonist, Herold made his debut in the New Yorker with this cartoon in the June 1, 1929 issue:
Herold began working as an illustrator around 1910, and enjoyed a long career with a number of publications, including the humor magazine Judge:
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When the Chrysler Building was completed in May 1930, it officially became the world’s tallest building (a record it ceded 11 months later to the Empire State Building). Being the tallest gave the building the distinction of being something to be measured against, including the durability of a musical recording pressed into a material called “Durium”…
…and when advertisers were in need of something large for comparison, they also turned to the new skyscraper to drive home their selling point…
…new skyscrapers also were used to lend distinction to their tenants, such as Liberty Magazine in the new Daily News Building…
…below a 1940 postcard image of the Daily News Building, then known simply as “The News Building,” and a view of the lobby’s famous globe in 1941…
…on to the rest of our ads, here’s a baldly misogynistic one from Longchamps restaurants…
…and as Prohibition wore on into the Thirties, we have sad little back page ads for cocktail “flavours” and Benedictine “Dessert Sauce”…
…on to our comics, Gardner Rea explored the subject of family planning…
…Art Young illustrated the perils of modern art…
…Otto Soglow took a stroll with a somnambulist…
…Leonard Dove inked this awkward moment between the Old and New Worlds…
It is often observed that when we look to the past we can see our the future. More than 90 years ago, Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) wrote an influential book on modern architecture, Vers une Architecture (1923) that helped to radically change our built environment.Translated into English in 1927 under varying titles (Toward an Architecture, or Towards a New Architecture), the book caught the appreciative eye of New Yorker architecture critic George Chappell, who wrote under the pseudonym “T-Square.”
Given that most new architecture in Manhattan was adorned in architectural stylings from the past, or gussied up in Jazz Age art deco, Chappell was introducing his readers to something very different, to ideas that would transform their city within two generations.
In his embrace of technology and mass production, Corbusier maintained that houses should be built in standardized forms that allowed for continuous refinement, designed as “machines for living” with the same precision as automobiles and airplanes…
In case you doubt the architect’s fervor, here is Corbusier’s manifesto on mass production included in Towards a New Architecture:
In Towards a New Architecture, Corbusier wrote that while architecture was stifled by custom and lost in the past (“to send architectural students to Rome is to cripple them for life…”), engineers were embracing new technologies and building simple, effective and “honest” structures. Rather than rely on past forms or contemporary trends such as art deco, Corbusier said architecture should fundamentally change how humans interact with buildings.
Corbusier concluded his book with a moral imperative and an ominous choice for the future: “Architecture or Revolution.” He asserted that the “great disagreement between the modern state of mind…and the stifling accumulation of age-long detritus” would force modern man to live in an “old and hostile environment” and deny him an “organized family life,” ultimately leading to the destruction of the family.
In less than 10 years the Nazis would chase the “degenerate” Bauhaus out of Europe and into the embrace of American academe. In short order Corporate America would adopt Corbusier’s International Style, if imperfectly, but most Americans would prove resistant to making their homes into “machines for living.”
Corbusier would doubtless be shocked (and disappointed) to know that 100 years hence people would still choose to live in mock Tudors and “Tuscan Villas,” especially in the midst of so much advanced technology.
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AS HE WAS SAYING…
The new Sherry-Netherland apartment hotel near Central Park was exactly the sort of architecture Corbusier detested. The New Yorker editors in “The Talk of the Town,” however, seemed impressed with its elegant appointments…
“Talk” noted that beneath the Sherry-Netherland’s spire the penthouse apartment could be had for $35,000 a year, roughly equivalent to $477,000 today. The building went co-op in the 1950s, and that would have been a good time to buy the penthouse. Today it is valued at more than $100 million.
Poo on Pooh
Dorothy Parker lamented the state of children’s literature in the “Books” section, and expressed her displeasure with A.A. Milne, a former humor writer for Punch who “went quaint” with his Winnie the Pooh stories.
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New Game in Town
Niven Busch Jr. wrote about the growing popularity of professional hockey. Tex Rickard’s two-year-old franchise, the New York Rangers, were a major draw at the new Madison Square Garden (they would win the Stanley Cup in their second year), and even Texans were into the sport–Busch noted that a game between Dallas and Fort Worth teams drew 20,000 spectators.
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And finally, from the world of advertising, here is one in a series of classically themed ads for the McCreery department store…
…and this advertisement for the Marmon 8, an “ideal woman’s car”…
The Roaring Twenties saw astonishing changes to American life, including a dramatic break from the technologies and habits of the past. Icemen gave way to electric refrigerators, broadcast radio brought entertainment and news into living rooms, and Lindbergh made flying something everyone wanted to try.
Despite the mechanized horrors of World War I, most people were enchanted by the idea of man and machine coming together to make a better world. In the U.S. the machine-age exuberance was expressed largely in capitalist terms, while many European and Soviet intellectuals saw the machine as integral to the progress of socialism. The Machine-Age Exposition in New York City (May 16-28 at 119 West 57th Street) celebrated all facets through a unique event that brought together architecture, engineering, industrial arts and modern art from a number of nations.
The exhibition, initiated by Jane Heap of the literary magazine The Little Review, included exhibits from the U.S., Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland and the Soviet Union. Artists in the exhibition represented a Who’s Who of modernists and futurists — Alexander Archipenko, Marcel Duchamp, Hugh Ferriss, Man Ray and others who celebrated the aural and visual cacophony of the age as well as the gleaming precision of machines and machine-like buildings.
New Yorker writer E.B. White shared in the enthusiasm with this bit for “The Talk of the Town…”
The sleek and glass-walled buildings featured at the Exhibition were fantastic images in 1927, when most large-scale buildings were still being rendered in brick and stone in various neoclassical, federal or gothic styles.
Little did visitors to the Exposition realize that the radical Bauhaus style on display would become ubiquitous in the U.S. in the second half of their century, thanks not to some new machine age of peace and harmony but rather because of the annihilation of the Second World War and the mass migration from Europe of architects, artists, scientists and other professionals fleeing Nazi oppression.
It was also a time when it was believed technology was on the verge of conquering nature, and that the invention of air-conditioning and “Vita-Glass” would create indoor environments with all of the health benefits but none of the discomforts of the outdoors:
The invention of sulfa drugs and antibiotics were still a few years away, so health providers were excited about the possibilities of these artificial environments.
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In the “A Reporter at Large” column, Russell Owen wrote about the intrepid flyers who were vying to become the first to fly nonstop across the Atlantic. He began the piece with a tribute to French ace pilot Charles Nungesser and his one-eyed wartime buddy François Coli, who disappeared during their May 8 attempt to fly from Paris to New York.
Owen also wrote about those who would soon be taking the same daring leap into “the illimitable terror of space”…
Although Lindbergh had yet to accomplish his feat, he had already been singled out as a loner and a bit of an odd duck:
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Editors of “Talk of the Town” also checked in on famed dancer Isadora Duncan, her eldest daughter Anna, and Isadora’s “amazing dancing family…”
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And finally, an excerpt of a poem contributed by Marion Clinch Calkins–who often wrote humorous rhymes for the New Yorker under the pen name Majollica Wattles. Here she riffs on Horace’s “poetry of pleasure…”
If you’ve been following the cover credits of the 113 issues I have featured so far, you’ll notice that many of the covers were illustrated by Ilonka Karasz, including the cover of the April 16, 1927 issue featured in this post.
During her long and varied career Karasz would design 186 covers for the New Yorker. A native of Hungary, she moved to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Greenwich Village, where she quickly rose to become a prominent practitioner of modern design and the decorative arts.
She created paintings, prints and drawings in her early years before moving on to a variety of machine- and hand-made objects rendered in silver and ceramic. She designed furniture strongly influenced by the European De Stijl movement, and was also a pioneer of modern textile design, even developing textiles for use in airplanes and automobiles.
Beginning in the 1940s Karasz would emerge as one of the country’s leading wallpaper artists. Her younger sister, Mariska Karasz, would also become a noted American fashion designer and textile artist.
The range of Ilonka Karasz’s work is astonishing — from homespun images of rural America to the sleek, hard edges of modern design; from textiles and wallpaper to silver sets and large-scale furniture. Now I will get out of the way so you can see for yourself: