A Familiar Ring

Ring Lardner is one of those 20th century American writers everyone has heard of but few have actually read. This is perhaps because he is often pigeonholed as a sportswriter rather than being remembered as a gifted satirist whose crisp writing style—often peppered with slang—influenced a generation of writers including Ernest Hemingway, who covered sports for his high school newspaper under the pseudonym “Ring Lardner.”

July 7, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lardner would contribute nearly two dozen pieces to the New Yorker beginning with this ditty in the April 18, 1925 issue—

—and ending with “Odd’s Bodkins,” published posthumously in the Oct. 7, 1933 issue (Lardner died at age 48 of a heart ailment on Sept. 25, 1933). In his satirical “Profiles” piece for the July 7, 1928 issue, Lardner had some fun with editor and playwright Beatrice Kaufman, who like Lardner existed within the orbit of the famed Algonquin Round Table but was not a regular member (however Beatrice’s husband, playwright and director George S. Kaufman, was a charter member).

The entire piece, including an illustration by Peter Arno, is below (click image to enlarge the text):

Ring Lardner in undated photo, possibly mid 1920s (Encyclopaedia Britannica)
KAUFMAN CHUMS…Comedian Julius Tannen (left) frolics with Beatrice Kaufman and George S. Kaufman in Atlantic City in the 1920s; writer/critic Alexander Woollcott (left), artist Neysa McMein, actor Alfred Lunt, Beatrice Kaufman and comedian Harpo Marx hanging out in the 1920s. (spartacus-educational.com)

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One New Yorker writer who does stand the test of time is E.B. White, known to earlier generations for his many humorous contributions to the New Yorker and to later generations for his co-authorship of the English language reference The Elements of Style, and for his beloved children’s books including Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web (Charlotte’s Web was often voted as the top children’s novel in a survey of School Library Journal readers, and most recently in 2012—the 60th anniversary of its publication). In the July 7, 1928 issue the nature-loving White offered these tongue-in-cheek plant care instructions, arranged atop a cartoon by Alan Dunn:

Another cartoon in the July 7 issue by Garrett Price offered another perspective on an advertising come-on:

No doubt Price was referencing ads such as this one below by the American Tobacco Company in which actress and dancer Gilda Gray—who in the 1920s popularized a dance called the “shimmy”—announced her preference for pipe smokers:

And we close with this cartoon by Al Frueh, who demonstrated how fashion had freed the woman of the Roaring Twenties:

Interested in the history of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists? Then I recommend you check out cartoonist Michael Maslin’s Inkspill website for news on cartoonists and events. Another great site is Stephen Nadler’s Attempted Bloggery, which explores original art, auctions, obscurities and other angles of New Yorker cartoons and cartoonists.

A couple of my favorite Maslin cartoons (among many):

Next Time: 100 Percent Talker…

Race Matters

Ben Hecht was a well-known screenwriter, director, producer, playwright (notably, The Front Page) and journalist who contributed a number of comic essays to The New Yorker, including “The Caliph Complex” featured on Page 30 of the Dec. 4, 1926 issue.

December 4, 1926 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

The magazine consistently rejected “uptown slumming” by New Yorkers seeking exotic thrills in Harlem nightclubs (see my recent post on nightlife correspondent Lois Long’s ho-hum attitude toward the Cotton Club), and Ben Hecht was no exception to this stance.

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A drawing by Julian De Miskey that accompanied Hecht’s article.

In her book Defining New Yorker Humor, Judith Yaross Lee suggests that Hecht’s criticism of “slummers” was not an act of political liberalism, but rather was in line with the magazine’s habit of poking fun at the faddish. Hence the opening lines of Hecht’s essay:

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As I’ve previously noted, for all its sophistication The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in treating blacks as racial “others.”

Lee notes that only a few illustrations in the magazine’s first five years depicted Asians, and the servant class was mostly represented by European types (butlers with a Jeeves-like air, or comely chamber-maids).

Ben Hecht

When it came to depictions of black and brown faces, Lee notes that the magazine featured “conventional” types of the day–minstrel figures in blackface (see illustration above) or exotic African dancers.

When blacks were depicted as servants, they were rendered as “mammies,” such as in this cartoon by Reginald Marsh in the Dec. 4 issue:

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On the facing page, Peter Arno offered a depiction of a servant more typical for the magazine:

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But lest we feel smug in looking down at our literary forebears, the current discourse in our country seems to indicate that we still have a long way to go on issues of race.

Although there is much to dislike about The New Yorker’s views on race 90 years ago, its criticism of faddish “slumming” did call into question 1920s notions of race. Lee notes that the cartoon by Reginald Marsh (above) is actually a sneer aimed at the white woman for her patronizing comment. She represented the “fashionable Afrophilia” that Hecht and his fellow New Yorker writers detested.

“The Caliph Complex,” according to Lee, “suggested that The New Yorker did not so much ignore Africanist movements as suspect their white supporters.” The following October, Dorothy Parker would pen the essay “Arrangement in Black and White”–the story of a party in honor of a famous gospel singer–that would echo Hecht’s attack on false liberalism.

Next Time: What Price Glory…