The Last Dance?

Before there was Fred and Ginger, there was Fred and Adele, and during the 1920s and early 30s Fred and Adele Astaire were brother-sister dancing royalty and the toast of Broadway.

April 21, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.


Fred and Adele Astaire were born a year apart in Omaha (she the eldest, born in 1898). Their mother wanted the siblings to learn professional dance at an early age, so in 1903 she moved with the children to New York City, leaving their Austrian-born father in Nebraska to work at the Storz brewery. By 1905 the brother-sister act were already popular on the vaudeville circuit, making their way to the Broadway stage by 1917.

EARLY BLOOMERS…Left, Fred and Adele Astaire in a photo taken around 1906, three years after they left Omaha and began their vaudeville career. At right, Fred and Adele in 1911. (Pinterest/NY Times)

Fred became friends with composer George Gershwin the previous year, and in December 1924 the Astaires headlined George and Ira Gershwin’s first full-length New York musical, Lady, Be Good!, in which Fred and Adele played a brother-and-sister dance team down on their luck. In real life, however, their star soared above Jazz Age New York. So when rumor had it that the duo was on the verge of a break-up, “The Talk of the Town” weighed in:

NO, THE OTHER ASTAIRE…At left, Adele and Fred Astaire in the 1920s. At the time the gamine Adele was considered the undisputed star of the duo. At right, the pair in a 1931 ad for Chesterfield cigarettes that also promoted The Band Wagon, their last Broadway revue together. (NY Times/atticpaper.com)

Today you would be hard pressed to find anyone young or old who hasn’t heard of Fred Astaire, his legend so firmly attached to our cultural memory. But at the time it was Adele’s fun-loving ways and mischievous charm that captured the hearts of reviewers and fans alike. Brother Fred, on the other hand, was more interested in devising the duo’s clever routines.

The April 21, 1928 New Yorker was correct in noting that Adele had plans to marry and leave the country, but happily the magazine was wrong on the timing; Adele and Fred would perform together nearly four more years, capping their 27-year partnership with the successful run of The Band Wagon on Broadway.

In 1932 Adele would marry Lord Charles Cavendish and move to Ireland, not England. Home would be Lismore Castle in County Waterford. The end of the partnership with Adele was traumatic for Fred, who was indeed interested in producing and race horses, but that was not his immediate future as the New Yorker suggested. Instead, his movie career would take off like a rocket in 1933 in a string of hits with Ginger Rodgers including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936).

Fred Astaire briefly turned his focus to horse-racing when he announced his early retirement in 1946, but he would soon return to the screen with Easter Parade in 1948 and enjoy another string of hits in the 1950s. Though separated by an ocean, the brother and sister remained close through the years.

MY SIS IS A LADY…A reunion of Astaires in Ireland, 1939. Fred Astaire and his wife, Phyllis Livingston Potter, with Lord and Lady Charles Cavendish photographed on the day brother Fred and wife arrived at Lismore Castle from America to stay with sister Adele and her husband at their home in County Waterford. (Pinterest)
SOARING CAREER…Ginger Rodgers swings with Fred Astaire in 1938’s Carefree. (Flickr)
TOGETHER AFTER ALL THESE YEARS…Left, Fred and Adele honored by the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1972 (celebrity promotor Earl Blackwell is in the center). Right, Fred and Adele at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, circa 1980. Chatsworth had been in the Cavendish family since the 17th century, so Adele, as Lady Cavendish, was a frequent visitor. In a recent article in The Cheshire Magazine (April 11, 2017) Duchess Mary recalled the family’s first meeting with Adele in 1932: “All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library… the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking, she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.”(ATHF/thecheshiremagazine.co.uk)

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Not So Happy Feet

Frequent New Yorker contributor Morris Markey wrote several articles under the heading, “New York Interiors” (my last post featured his look at radio broadcasting). In the April 21 issue Markey took a look at the sad world of the “taxi dancers” in the ironically named “Happiness Hall.” This was the second time the New Yorker delved into the taxi-dancing world—Maxwell Bodenheim visited a Broadway dance hall in the June 12, 1926 edition of the magazine.

In both cases, the writers described a pathetic ritual for dancers and patrons alike, and both underscored a cruel illusion we still have today that the Roaring Twenties was an age of prosperity and good times for all. Excerpts:

NO FREDS OR GINGERS HERE…Taxi-dancers awaiting customers at a Broadway dance hall in the early 1930s. The image was scanned from an article in Weekly Illustrated (Oct. 6, 1934) that described new regulations banning the vocation.

Later in the article, Markey described a dance with a red-haired girl who showed him the ropes…

…and described the less than elegant environment of “Happiness Hall”…

NO FUN IN THE MOVIES EITHER…Footsore taxi-dancers including Barbara Stanwyck, third from left, in 1931’s Ten Cents a Dance. (imdb)

Markey concluded his visit by attempting to talk, rather than dance, with a graceful, yet hardboiled dancer:

In the 1920s Americans in general were poorer than they are today (money-wise) and lacked the safety nets that we have come to depend on in modern life. In 1929 economists considered $2,500 the income necessary to support a family. In that year, more than 60 percent of the nation’s families earned less than $2,000 a year—an income necessary for basic necessities—and more than 40 percent earned less than $1,500 annually.

For single women, such as the taxi dancers, the situation was just as bad or worse. Retail workers in U.S. faced long hours, poor working conditions and low pay, especially before the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. A clerk selling those beautiful clothes at Bloomingdale’s couldn’t afford those clothes herself, let alone make a living wage from the job. As Markey’s article made clear, taxi dancing was nothing but additional toil, 10 cents a pop.

From Our Advertisers…

We’ve seen cigarette advertisements featuring celebrity endorsements, but how about this one for Marlboro that suggested Christopher Columbus would have preferred their smokes…

…and then there were the ads for Fleischmann Yeast featured in nearly every issue of the early New Yorker magazine. According to Thomas Kunkel’s book, Genius in Disguise, Raoul Fleischmann was the wealthy scion of a New York yeast and baking family and a frequent guest of the Algonquin Round Table. He hated the baking business, so when founding editor Harold Ross pitched the idea of investing in his new magazine, Fleischmann obliged with $25,000. Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, together put up the other $25,000 (which included some IOU’s), but after the magazine was launched and struggled during its first months, Fleischmann was further obliged to pour in many hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep the magazine afloat (and in spite teasing from his friends that he might as well dump the money in the river).

The magazine was actually killed as early as May 8, when Fleischmann called Ross and other magazine directors together after Ross lost a large amount of money in a poker game (money he’d plan to invest in the magazine). Fortunately, the following day was fellow Round Tabler Franklin P. Adams’ wedding, and in the convivial atmosphere Ross and Fleischmann agreed to give the magazine another go. If Fleischmann was going to pour money into the magazine, he might as well get a little “free” advertising for his product. Hence the ads in the New Yorker promoting the generous consumption of fresh yeast cakes as a laxative and health tonic…

…and with that background information, this cartoon in the April 21 issue by Peter Arno makes a lot more sense

And finally, Leonard Dove takes a look at life in a growing metropolis…

Next Time: Back to Broadway…

 

 

 

Bad Hootch

Despite Prohibition, perhaps a few champagne corks were popped for the January 15, 1927, edition of the New Yorker. This is Issue # 100.

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January 15, 1927–Issue # 100. The cover art by Constantin Alajalov.

Prohibition was on the minds of the editors of the issue, which featured a highly critical piece by Morris Markey (“A Reporter at Large”) on the hysteria surrounding the government’s attempt to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol. The editors of “The Talk of the Town” also made this observation:

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Before we get more into Markey’s piece, a little background is in order. In an article for Time magazine (Jan. 14, 2015) Lily Rothman writes that for years prior to Prohibition industrial alcohol had been “denatured” by adding toxic or unappetizing chemicals to it. This was done so folks couldn’t escape beverage taxes by drinking commercial-use alcohol instead — but it was still possible to re-purify the liquid so that it could be consumed.

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PARTY POOPER…New Jersey prohibition director Colonel Ira Reeves (right) ensures that a Newark garage owner’s alcohol is for cars only. (Getty)

Rothman cites a Time article from Jan. 10, 1927, which reported that Prohibition forces in the government were introducing a new formula that year for denaturing industrial-grade alcohol that doubled the poisonous content: “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol.” The article noted that “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.”

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Warning label from the 1920s (vickyloebel.com)

Although some opposed the practice as legalized murder, Rothman cites Seymour M. Lowman, who as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (1927-33) was in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Lowman told citizens that those on the fringes of society who continued to drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

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DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK…1920s label for bootleg moonshine. (googleuk)

Thousands died from consuming poisoned alcohol. Rothman writes that 33 people died in Manhattan alone in a three-day period in 1928, mostly from drinking wood alcohol.

Markey’s stance in his New Yorker article is somewhat unique, if not cold-hearted. Instead of taking the government to task for the practice, he assured his well-heeled readers that they had nothing to fear as long as they procured their alcohol from reputable bootleggers at top prices. Markey seemed to care not at all for the poor “slum-dwellers” who died from consuming the cheap stuff:

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If anything, Markey’s sympathies seemed to lie with those who had to drink the safe, albeit diluted hootch. He explained how four bottles of bootleg Scotch could be fashioned from a single bottle of the real deal:

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And if you had money, there was no need to fear death from drink…

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…that is, unless you were careless:

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Helena Huntington Smith wrote a profile on the actor Adolphe Menjou, described by IMDB as Hollywood’s epitome of suave and debonair style: “Known for his knavish, continental charm and sartorial opulence, Menjou, complete with trademark waxy black mustache, evolved into one of Hollywood’s most distinguished of artists and fashion plates, a tailor-made scene-stealer.” Interestingly, Menjou was born in Pittsburgh, and not in France as many a fan assumed (his father, however, was a French émigré).

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Glass lantern advertising slide for Menjou’s 1927 silent film A Gentleman of Paris.

In other items, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) once again set his sights on the city’s changing skyline. He began with the new General Motors building at Columbus Circle:

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He was thrilled by the push-button automation of the building’s elevators:

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The General Motors building, left, as it originally appeared on Columbus Circle. It was designed by Shreve & Lamb, who would soon go on to design the Empire State Building. At right, the building became known as the Newsweek Building. (Drawing by J. W. Golinkin in Towers of Manhattan, 1928, and photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

If George Chappell thought the General Motors building had some issues in 1927, he should see it today, wrapped in tacky reflecting glass and renamed 3 Columbus Circle:

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WHY? WHY ON EARTH?

Elsewhere, Chappell was agog at Sloan & Robertson’s massive Graybar Building:

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Sloan & Robertson’s Graybar Building at 420 Lexington. (history.graybar.com)

And to close, this ad on the back page for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the company’s famous Atlantic City sign. Note the point of pride: There are 13,000 lamps in the sign, but four times that many Chesterfields are smoked every minute…koff…koff…

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Next Time…Upstairs, Downstairs…

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Tarnished Tinseltown

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July 10, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Although there are some good indie and foreign films being made these days, not to mention some decent stuff on cable and streaming services, we still have plenty of bland popcorn fare coming out of Hollywood that combines the worst of unscrupulous producers and their fawning writers and directors.

That’s how The New Yorker viewed Hollywood 90 years ago. Movie critic Theodore Shane weekly voiced his disappointment over American cinematic fare (while generally praising the work of European, and particularly German directors), and writer Morris Markey took the industry to task in the July 10, 1926 edition of the magazine, finding the whole lot of Hollywood to be a cesspool of mediocrity and dishonesty. It also didn’t help that Will H. Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers, was enforcing his morality code on the motion picture industry:

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Here’s the full illustration that was cut off above, because it’s worth a look:

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Later in the article Markey laid into the men in charge of the studios:

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And if you think Paris Hilton or the Kardashians are recent phenomena, Markey also leveled scorn at the media, and gullible audiences, for supporting this tawdry spectacle:

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Publicity still of Hollywood starlets Dorothy Sebastian and Joan Crawford (on a Santa Monica beach) most likely used to promote the 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters. (BBC)

Motion Picture magazine and others of this ilk were the US magazines of the 1920s:

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Rudolph Valentino on the cover of the September 1926 issue of Motion Picture magazine. (archive.org)

And finally, a couple of bits for my “They Didn’t Know What Was Coming” department. Generally people were having too good of a time in the Roaring Twenties to take this fascism thing very seriously. From the section “Of All Things:”

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And from “The  Talk of the Town:”

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Next Time: The Good Old Summertime…

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