Back to Business

Two weeks had passed since the “Black Tuesday” collapse of share prices on the New York Stock Exchange, but the New Yorker went about business as usual, E.B. White opening his “Notes and Comment” with a complaint — not about the economy — but about a marketing ploy that had New York University shilling magazines on behalf of Funk & Wagnalls.

Nov. 16, 1929 cover by Peter Arno. No doubt Arno drew inspiration from his own domestic situation (with wife and New Yorker columnist Lois Long and their infant daughter Patricia Arno).

White mocked the contents of a letter from NYU that promised a “free” education to subscribers of Funk & Wagnalls’ middlebrow Literary Digest. 

EASY-CHAIR EDUCATION…Founded in 1890 by Isaac Funk (of Funk & Wagnalls fame), the Literary Digest offered readers condensed articles from various American and European publications. The weekly magazine surpassed the one million circulation mark in 1927, but declined precipitously in 1936 after its famed (and usually reliable) presidential poll picked Alf Landon over FDR. It folded in 1938. (Pinterest)

White detailed how NYU’s director of public information promised untold riches to potential Literary Digest subscribers…

YOU CAN BE FAMOUS, FOR JUST PENNIES A DAY…E.B. White mocked an NYU letter that promoted its “hook-up” with the Literary Digest, wryly suggesting that recognition in NYU’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans was within reach of magazine subscribers. The photo above (circa 1935) shows the Hall of Fame’s colonnade, which half-encircled the university library (both designed by Stanford White) and housed 98 bronze busts. A financially strapped NYU sold its University Heights Campus, along with the Hall of Fame and library, to the City University of New York in 1973. (WPA photo via boweryboyshistory.com)

…and the not so subtle revelation that the “free” education came with a price:

Here’s Julian De Miskey’s illustration that accompanied White’s “Notes”…

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The Lighter Side of Bankruptcy

Evidence of the recent stock market crash was scant in the Nov. 16 issue, save for this blurb from Howard Brubaker

…and this short piece by Margaret Fishback, who took a characteristically lighthearted approach to the devastating news:

Fishback (1900-1985), a widely published poet and prose author from the late 1920s to the 1960s, was also a successful advertising copywriter for Macy’s and a number of other companies.

A WAY WITH WORDS…Margaret Fishback wrote a number of poetry and prose books, including Safe Conduct: When to Behave–and Why, a book of etiquette illustrated by the New Yorker’s Helen Hokinson. During the 1930s Fishback was reputed to be the world’s highest-paid female advertising copywriter. (necessaryfiction.com/Wikipedia)

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We Stand Corrected

A correction of sorts was offered by Robert Benchley (aka “Guy Fawkes”) regarding one of his recent “Wayward Press” columns, in which the fatal crash of famed aviator Wilmer Stultz’s stunt plane was misattributed to drunkenness:

Following the above intro, Benchley included this letter from a representative of the Roosevelt Flying Corporation, John McK. Stuart, in which Stuart explained the real reason for the pilot’s fatal crash, and the source of a vicious rumor:

The cause of the crash, as reported in the New York Times, was attributed to two young men who begged for a ride on Stultz’s stunt plane, a Waco Taperwing, in the early afternoon of July 1, 1929. An investigation of the wreckage found shoes from both passengers jammed under a bar connected to the rudder, rendering it inoperable. In his letter, Stuart explained:

Apparently Stultz’s passengers had braced themselves during stunt maneuvers by jamming their feet under the rudder bar. According to the Times, after a couple of rolling stunts the plane began to climb again from about 200 feet when it rotated nose down and plunged into the ground. Both passengers were killed instantly. Stultz died shortly thereafter at a Long Island hospital.

BRIEF FLIGHT THROUGH LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Wilmer Stultz (1900-1929) in undated photo; coverage of the fatal crash in the July 2, 1929 New York Times; Stultz, Amelia Earhart, and Lou Gordon feted in front of City Hall, New York City, following their successful flight across the Atlantic in June 1928. Stultz was the pilot of the Fokker Trimotor “Friendship,” aboard which Earhart became the first woman passenger to cross the Atlantic by airplane. Gordon served as the flight’s on-board mechanic. (Boston Public Library/New York Times/Amazon)

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Cowardly Attack

The acclaimed English playwright and composer Noël Coward was much beloved by the New Yorker, so it pained Robert Benchley to write an unflattering review of Coward’s operetta, Bitter Sweet:

IN THE SOPRANO KEY…British musical star Evelyn Laye (1900-1996) played the leading role of Sari in Noël Coward’s Broadway production of Bitter Sweet. (From The Bygone)

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Hat Shop Heroine

Another operetta — Mlle. Modiste — was getting a Broadway revival at Jolson’s 59th Street Theatre. Its star, Fritzi Scheff (1879-1954), was the subject of a short profile penned by Alison Smith. The operetta, written expressly for Scheff, premiered on Broadway in 1905 at the Knickerbocker Theatre, and enjoyed many revivals. Smith found that after nearly 25 years, Scheff still embodied the role of the hat shop girl who dreamed of being an opera singer. An excerpt:

From left, Fritzi Scheff in Mlle. Modiste (1905); Al Frueh’s caricature of Scheff for the profile; Scheff circa 1910. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

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Best of Both Worlds

Although the Gothic style was quickly falling out of fashion in the age of Art Deco, architecture critic George S. Chappell found much to admire in Schultze & Weaver’s new Hotel Lexington, part of the hotel construction boom in New York’s Midtown:

STILL ATTACHED TO THE EARTH…The Lexington today, now a Marriott property, at 511 Lexington Avenue and 48th Street. (ohrllc.com)

Chappell also admired the “smart” new Stewart Building, calling it the perfect setting for “feminine luxuries”…

Sadly, the Stewart Company folded just months after the opening of its new building, an early victim of the Depression. Bonwit Teller took over the building in 1930 and stayed until 1979. It was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower.

BYGONE ELEGANCE…Stewart and Company’s metal and ceramic 5th Avenue entrance, detail, 1929; Stewart Millinery Shop, 1929 (image from Vogue); detail from ornamental frieze above the 8th story, 1929. The building was demolished in 1980 to make way for Trump Tower. Neither the frieze nor the ornate ironwork were saved. (Museum of the City of New York/Vogue via drivingfordeco.com)

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A Survivor’s Tale

The New Yorker hailed Soviet writer Valentine Kataev’s debut novel, The Embezzlers, as “the first hearty and sane laugh that has been heard over the noise of Russian propaganda.” Published in 1926 and translated into English in 1929, the novel was a satire of bureaucracy in the new Soviet state. Remarkably, Kataev (1897-1986) was able to write challenging, satirical works throughout his long life and career without running afoul of Soviet authorities, or falling victim to Stalin’s terror campaigns:

SATIRICAL SOVIET…Valentine Kataev circa 1930. His 1926 debut novel, The Embezzlers, was a satire of Soviet bureaucracy. (russkiymir.ru)

Another title receiving a favorable review, Is Sex Necessary? — a spoof of popular sex manuals and how-to books — was co-written by the New Yorker’s James Thurber and E.B. White, with illustrations provided by Thurber.

HE CAN DRAW, TOO…Although James Thurber had yet to publish one of his drawings in the New Yorker, the book Is Sex Necessary? featured 42 of them, including the illustration at right that demonstrated the male greeting posture, and below, the posture of a man who could not discern the difference between love and passion. (brainpickings.org)

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Old News

Writer (and later screenwriter) David Boehm temporarily took over the history column “That Was New York” from playwright Russell Crouse and contributed the first in a series of articles featuring clippings from 18th century newspapers (with illustration by Julian De Miskey):

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From Our Advertisers

The Depression was coming, but you wouldn’t know it by the ads that appeared in the Nov. 16 issue, which featured the latest in resort wear, and holiday fashions for the maid…

…the Jay Thorpe store assumed some readers had $1,250 to spare for this coat and muff (equivalent to about $18,000 today), while Udall and Ballou jewelers offered a brooch for $9,000 (or nearly $130,000 today)…

…Saks offered a “simple little tailored bag” for $5, although the one pictured in the ad would set you back $500 ($7,200 today)…

…in this clever ad for Kayser silk hosiery, illustrator Ian Oliver drew a shelf from negative space to allow the model some room to lean…

…makers of the Ronson cigarette lighter found a new use for their product, adapting it to serve as a perfume atomizer…I wonder how many women accidentally lit their hair on fire, or took a shot of perfume to the eyes when they wished to have a smoke…

…while you had the lighter handy, you could light up an Old Gold, and thanks to the lack of truth-in-advertising standards, you could do it believing that you were also warding off a winter cold…

…from the back pages we have these gems from Brunswick records, and Reuben’s restaurant, which featured written testimonials from famous clientele including the “It Girl” actress Clara Bow, cartoonist Harry Hershfield, and playwright Noël Coward

Dr. Seuss offered his latest take on the uses of Flit insecticide, here sprayed directly into a user’s face for maximum benefit…

…our cartoons come courtesy of Gardner Rea, who looked in on an act of charity…

Reginald Marsh illustrated a new use for broadcast radio…

Barbara Shermund put the “idle” in “idle rich”…

Garrett Price gave us this lovely illustration of a casual reader…

…and Helen Hokinson went shopping with one of her society women…

Next Time: A Glimpse of the Future…

 

 

 

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

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He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

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Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

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Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…

 

Back to Broadway

From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.

April 28, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

INSEPARABLE…The Lunts in the 1920s, as photographed by Nickolas Muray. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to them with a first- class stamp. (Conde Nast/USPS)

Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:

OLD FRIENDS…Noel Coward (left) Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Coward’s 1932 play Design For Living. A close friend of Lunt and Fontanne, Coward enjoys a relaxing moment (right) at the couple’s “Ten Chimneys” estate in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin. (Playbill/tenchimneys.org)
IT REALLY HAS TEN CHIMNEYS…At left, the main house at Lunt and Fontanne’s “Ten Chimneys.” At right, the estate’s ‘Falu-Red’ Cottage. The estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. (tenchimneys.org)

Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.

According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.

And Then There Were Hearst & Davies

Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.

Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy,  even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:

SHOWING HER FUN SIDE…Left, publicity photo of Marion Davies, late 1920s. At right, Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) vies for the attentions of her mother, Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) and sister Grace Harrington (Jane Winton) in King Vidor’s 1928 hit comedy The Patsy. The film was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst along with Davies and Vidor.(cinemaartscentre.org)

A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”

One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.

PSSST…LIGHTEN UP, WILL YA?…Warner Baxter and Pola Negri in Three Sinners (1928). (Paramount)

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Another Bad Girl

Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.

On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.

BAD GIRL, GOOD SALES…Clockwise, from upper left: a screenshot of Delmar from the trailer for 1934’s Sadie McKee, a film starring Joan Crawford based on Delmar’s 1933 short story “Pretty Sadie McKee”; an ad for Bad Girl in the April 28, 1928 New Yorker; original jacket cover for Bad Girl; a 1930 advertisement for the film Dance Hall, based on a 1929 Delmar short story. (Wikipedia/New Yorker/Amazon/immortalephemera.com)

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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: After Hours…

The Dramatic Season

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Sept. 5, 1925, cover by James Daugherty.

The writer Michael Arlen was back in pages of The New Yorker on the occasion of his second visit to the U.S. The magazine also heralded his first visit in March 1925, when he was liberally feted by various literary hangers-on and assorted socialites.

This time around Arlen was the guest of Charles Dillingham, “being at the moment deeply engaged in his host’s forthcoming presentation of Mr. Cyril Maude in “The Charming People.” And, between times, casting watchful eyes on “The Green Hat,” whose New York premiere next week comes just in the nick of time to save many of Mr. Arlen’s admirers from collapses fomented by anguished anticipation.”

With Arlen’s return, and with new works by the “youngster” Noel Coward (he was 26), ‘The Talk of the Town” noted that the fall theater season “will have a distinctly British flavor.”

2006AH1503_noel_coward
The young Noel Coward. (Victoria & Albert Museum)

“Talk” called Coward “the rage of the London dramatic season,” in anticipation of his upcoming New York presentations:

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Babe Ruth also returned to “Talk” with another tale of mischief:

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It was also reported that Charlie Chaplin was still playing the melancholy, holed up in his room at the Ritz with his telephone disconnected:

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French tennis star Rene Lacoste was the subject in “Profiles.” John Tunis wrote, “The French are supposed to be a volatile people. Rene Lacoste us about as volatile as Swiss cheese. His is the most perfect self-control imaginable; both on the court and off, his is the demeanor of a real champion…he will go a very long way.”

140317135210-rene-lacoste-reptile-horizontal-large-gallery
Rene Lacoste was one of “The Four Musketeers” with Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, and Henri Cochet, French tennis stars who dominated the game in the 1920s and early 1930s. He won seven Grand Slam singles titles at the French, American, and British championships, and was the World’s No. 1 player for both 1926 and 1927. Today he is still known worldwide as the creator of the Lacoste tennis shirt, which he introduced in 1929. (Biography.com)

“Moving Pictures” announced the arrival of the German film Siegfried at the Century Theatre. An advertisement in the magazine proclaimed that a “Symphonic Orchestra of 60 musicians from the Metropolitan Opera Co. render a special score compiled with Wagner’s Immortal Music…”

Nibelungen_film1
Still from 1924’s Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (UFA)

In my last post I wrote about Raoul Fleischmann’s investment in The New Yorker, and how his initial $25,000 led to subsequent infusions of hundreds of thousands of dollars. No doubt in an effort to recoup some of his investment, he started placing these full-page ads in the magazine that promoted health benefits of consuming his company’s product: yeast.

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Next time: Issue #30: A Magazine’s Merry Ride

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