The Thurber Effect

We’ve looked at a number of artists and writers who were instrumental in giving the New Yorker its unique look and voice, but few were more influential than James Thurber, who contributed some of the New Yorker’s most memorable writings (“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) as well as some of its most enduring cartoons and illustrations.

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September 17, 1927 cover by Julian de Miskey.

In fact, Thurber’s art is so ingrained in the New Yorker’s culture that the magazine goes to great lengths to preserve some of his office wall drawings, which move along with the magazine each time it relocates. On his website Ink Spill, New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin writes “When you move, it’s always reassuring unboxing something you love from the old place and setting it down in the new place.”

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ICONS…Thurber’s wall drawings installed in the New Yorker offices at One World Trade Center (Ink Spill)

In 1991, when the New Yorker prepared to leave its longtime home at 25 West 43rd Street (where Thurber originally doodled on a plaster wall), conservators carved several drawings from the wall and mounted them in protective glass. The drawings were eventually installed at the magazine’s new offices across the street at 20 West 43rd St. They were moved again when the New Yorker relocated to 4 Times Square in 1999 and then once more in 2015 to their current location at One World Trade Center.

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NEW YORKER GIANTS…E.B. White and James Thurber in 1929. The two would share an office and become good friends. In 1929 they would collaborate on a best-selling book spoof, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do. (xroads.virginia.edu)

Thurber joined the New Yorker staff in 1927, sharing an office “the size of a hall bedroom” with E. B. White, who had joined the magazine about a year earlier. According to Jon Michaud (in a June 2, 2010 New Yorker article), Thurber arrived at The New Yorker from Columbus, Ohio, via Paris, France, and a brief stint at the New York Evening Post. “Six months after he was hired, Thurber was transferred to the ‘Talk of the Town,’ where he found his feet as a reporter and did for that department what White did for ‘Notes and Comment’—he gave it an identity and a tone, which can still be heard in the magazine today.” This included introducing the convention of using the first person plural in “Talk” items.

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James Thurber in undated photo. (thefamouspeople.com)

His contribution to the Sept. 17, 1927 issue was not anonymous, however, as Thurber prominently signed his entire name–James Grover Thurber–at the end of a humorous essay, “Polo In The Home.” An excerpt:

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People in Glass Houses

Writing in her “About the House” column, Muriel Draper examined new uses for glass in modern design and concluded that houses built of glass rather than stone belonged to a distant future.

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Well, Muriel was almost right. Philip Johnson built his famous Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, in 1949. Muriel Draper died in 1952. I assume she visited the house or at least knew of it, since she and Johnson were in New York social orbits that often aligned, especially around the Harvard modernists.

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PASS THE WINDEX…Architect Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut. (connecticutmag.com)

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So Much For Golf

The Sept 17 issue also featured a profile of golfer Glenna Collett. Writer Niven Busch began by describing how Collett’s physical appearance compared with other women golfers and athletes. Yes, it was 1927. Title IX was still 45 years away. Here are the first two paragraphs, and an illustration for the profile by Johan Bull:

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I CAN GOLF, TOO…Golfer Glenna Collett in the late 1920s. (alchetron)

On the topic of physical appearance, it is interesting compare the above photograph of Collett with a rendering used in this 1925 Elgin watch ad (from another magazine). It looks nothing like Collett, not to mention the golf club she is holding would barely reach her knees let alone the ground.

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LOOK FAMILIAR?…The illustration for this advertisement is by James Montgomery Flagg, who in 1917 created the iconic “I Want You” Uncle Sam illustration for the U.S. Army. (Period Paper)

Finally, another look at the changing cityscape in this cartoon by H.O. Hoffman:

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Next Time: Flapper Fitness…

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The Flying Fool

Charles Lindbergh was “The Flying Fool” no more after flying nonstop across the Atlantic to worldwide acclaim. The New Yorker shared in the enthusiasm, although it tried its best to appear not too impressed by the feat. But as we shall see in subsequent issues, the New Yorker, along with the rest of the media, wouldn’t be able to get enough of the now “Lucky Lindy,” at least until he started spouting fascist sympathies.

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May 28, 1927, cover by Ilonka Karasz.

But that’s in the future. Here’s what the New Yorker had to say following Lindbergh’s famous flight in “Talk of the Town…”

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And from its distant perch the magazine also took some shots at the media hype surrounding Lindbergh, and the usual retinue of money-changers (see title image above)…

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So what was the New Yorker saying about the historic moment? Well, for most of us, life goes on…

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HE’S A GOOD BOY…Still from Movietone newsreel showing Lindbergh with his mother before the historic flight. (Movietone)

…and for those who missed it on TV (because it wasn’t invented yet), they could catch a newsreel of Lindbergh at the Roxy, complete with crude sound effects:

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OH CALM DOWN…A gendarmerie links arms in a futile attempt at crowd control as a mob closes in on the just-landed Spirit of St. Louis at Le Bourget airport in Paris. (parisdigest.com)

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On the other side of the pond, Paris correspondent Janet Flanner wrote about the Paris media’s complete denial or ignorance of the deaths of their own Atlantic flyers, Nungesser and Coli, who were lost at sea in their crossing attempt.

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The New Yorker offered more observations on the Machine-Age Exposition, this time in a column titled “About the House,” by Repard Leirum, which was Muriel Draper spelled backwards. Under this pseudonym Draper served as interior decoration critic for the New Yorker — she was one of the most influential personalities in the American interior decorating in the early 20th century.

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Muriel Draper, as photographed by Carl Van Vechten on July 30, 1934. (Muriel Draper Papers, Yale)

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This model of a radio station by Knud Londberg-Holm was displayed at the Machine-Age Exposition in New York City May 16-28, 1927. (artblart.com)

About Muriel Draper: Although she wrote on interior design for the New Yorker during the late 1920s, she was more widely known as a “culture desk” writer, and was prominent in promoting the Harlem Renaissance. She became active in left wing politics after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1934, and in 1949 she was investigated by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee and thereafter ceased her political activities.

The Machine-Age Exposition Draper visited had a decidedly socialist flavor with its prominent inclusion of the Soviet Union and its touting of the International Style of architecture. Before it was appropriated by post-war corporate America, the International Style was developed as housing and workspaces for the masses.

A side-note: The Exposition was initiated by Jane Heap, who like Muriel Draper was a follower of the charismatic Russian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff (among Gurdjieff’s other followers were architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the writer P. L. Travers (Mary Poppins) and 1960s counterculture figure Timothy Leary).

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George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, circa 1925-35 (Library of Congress)

Marxists with spiritual yearnings — and especially guild socialists — were attracted to Gurdjieff’s ideas about something he called “The Work,” in which crafts and community life provided ways to cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose amidst the activities of daily life.

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And now on to a different kind of Marxism…this odd little item from the “Talk of the Town”…

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In 1927 the Marx Brothers were still known as a traveling vaudeville act–their first feature film was still two years away. But thanks to the vaudeville circuit of the day, an astonishing number of people in cities large and small across the country would see them perform. The “Talk” item concludes with this story that references Henry Ford’s well-known anti-semitism:

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OH THE MOVIES THEY WILL MAKE…The Marx Brothers, from left, Chico, Zeppo, Groucho and Harpo. (biography.com)

Next Time: The Age of Innocence…

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