The Last Summer

Winding down the last summer of the 1920s — an unusually hot one — one detects subtle changes in the New Yorker’s mood; weary from the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties, a bit more mature, and more confident in its voice thanks to the regular writings of James Thurber, E.B. White and Lois Long and copious cartoons and illustrations by such notables as Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson that gave the magazine a distinctively modern feel as it headed into the 1930s.

Aug. 10, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt; Aug. 17 cover by Peter Arno.

The exuberance associated with the rapidly changing skyline was still there, however, as the Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” speculated on the race for the world’s tallest building. The article not only anticipated an architect’s sleight of hand, but also a Zeppelin docking station that in the end would top the world’s tallest building:

As it turned out, William Van Alen did not have to compete against himself, the commission for One Wall Street instead going to Ralph Walker, who would design a beautiful art deco landmark that, at 50 stories, would not vie for the title of the world’s tallest building. Unbeknownst to the New Yorker, and perhaps Van Alen, the challenger would instead be 40 Wall Street, which would hold the crown as world’s tallest for about a month. Thanks to some sleight of hand (see caption below) the Chrysler building would quickly surpass 40 Wall Street and hold the title for just eleven months, bested in the end by the Empire State Building (which would sport a “Zeppelin superstructure”).

COMPENSATING FOR SOMETHING?…40 Wall Street (left) vied with the Chrysler Building for the title of the world’s tallest building. The 927-foot 40 Wall Street would claim the title in late April 1930. One month later, the Chrysler building would sprout a needle-like spire (secretly constructed inside the building) bringing its total height to 1,046 feet. The builders of 40 Wall Street cried foul and claimed that their building contained the world’s highest usable floor, whereas the Chrysler’s spire was strictly ornamental and inaccessible. Less than a year later the point was made moot when the Empire State Building soared above them both. (Wikipedia/The Skyscraper Museum)
ERECTILE DYSFUNCTION…Clockwise, from top left, progression of designs for the Chrysler Building; the building’s architect, William Van Alen; drawing from Popular Science Monthly (Aug. 1930) revealed the inner workings of the spire’s clandestine construction; Zeppelin docking station for the Empire State Building as imagined in a composite (faked) photograph. At 1,250 feet, the wind-whipped mooring mast proved not only impractical, but downright dangerous. In September 1931 a dirigible briefly lashed itself to the mast in 40 mph winds, and two weeks later the Goodyear Blimp Columbia managed to deliver a stack of Evening Journals to a man stationed on the tower. Contrary to the faked photograph, no passengers ever transferred from the tower to a Zeppelin. (Skyscraper City/Wikipedia/NY Times)

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What, Me Worry?

The famously flamboyant New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker lived the easy life during his initial years as Hizzonner, riding a booming economy, partying with the rich and famous (while flaunting Prohibition laws), carousing with his mistress (Ziegfield dancer Betty Compton) and sleeping until noon. When reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia challenged Walker’s reelection bid in 1929, Walker left the dirty work to his Tammany Hall cronies and continued to charm the public, and the New Yorker. The Aug. 17 “Talk of the Town” observed:

IT’S EASY BEING ME…Mayor Jimmy Walker accompanied actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her latest film, Lilac Time. (konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)
I HAVE MY EYE ON YOU…Reform-minded Fiorello La Guardia (right) detested Jimmy Walker and his Tammany cronies, but that wasn’t enough to get him elected in 1929. The Great Depression would soon turn the tables. (Wikipedia)

Howard Brubaker, in his Aug. 17 “Of All Things” column, suggested that La Guardia had a zero chance of getting elected. Just three years later, Walker would resign amid scandal and flee to Europe. La Guardia, on the other hand, would be elected to the first of his three terms as mayor in 1933, riding the wave of the New Deal.

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Peek-A-Boo

Politics might have been business as usual, but in the world of fashion the vampish hat styles associated with flappers were giving way to a new rolled-brim look that seemed to suggest an aviator’s helmet. In her Aug. 17 fashion column “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long reported:

FACING THE FUTURE…Vampish hats of 1928, pictured at top, gave way to the rolled-brim or flare look of 1929. (Images gleaned from magazine/catalog images posted on Pinterest)

Long seemed to welcome the idea that women should once again bare their foreheads…

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Twain Wreck

Jumping back to the Aug. 10 issue, “The Talk of the Town” reported on the possible remodeling or demolition of a house once occupied by Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. The house in question was a lavish old mansion built by Henry Brevoort, Jr. in 1834, at the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 9th Street. Twain lived in the house from 1905 to 1908, and it was there that Twain’s biographer Albert Paine conducted interviews with the author and wrote the four-volume Mark Twain, a Biography; The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. When millionaires abandoned their Fifth Avenue mansions in the 1920s and high-rise apartments took their place, there was pressure to either convert an old mansion like the Breevoort house at 21 Fifth Avenue to apartments or demolish it altogether.

LOOKING GOOD AFTER A CENTURY…At left, Berenice Abbott took this photograph of No. 21 Fifth Avenue in 1935. At right, in a close-up shot from the same period, the 1924 plaque from the Greenwich Village Historical Society is visible on the side of the house. (Museum of the City of New York/Greenwich Village Historical Society)
A NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT…A proposed 1929 remodeling (left) moved the front door of the old Brevoort mansion to the center and lowered it to street level. At right, today the 1955 Brevoort apartment house occupies the site. (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

The Greenwich Village Historical Society did what it could to save the house, and in 1924 affixed a bronze plaque to a side wall noting that both Twain and Washington Irving were once occupants. When the house was slated for demolition in 1954, the Society appealed to New Yorkers to raise the $70,000 needed to move the building, but only a fraction of that amount was secured. No. 21 was demolished in 1954 along with the rest of the houses on that block.

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Charles Edward Chambers was an American illustrator probably best known for his Chesterfield ads, although he also illustrated stories for a number of popular magazines from the early 1900s until his death in 1941. The Aug. 10 “Talk of the Town” looked in on his work with model Virginia Maurice:

QUICK…THROW THAT MAN A CIGARETTE!…Examples of Charles Edward Chambers’ Chesterfield ads from 1929 featuring model Virginia Maurice. Note that Maurice is wearing the latest “rolled brim” hat style in the upper image. (Pinterest)
HIS NONSMOKING SECTION…A 1919 Harper’s cover illustration by Charles Edward Chambers. (Wikipedia)

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Mama’s Boy

Lou Gehrig rivaled Babe Ruth as a top Murderer’s Row slugger for the 1929 Yankees, yet he couldn’t be more opposite in his lifestyle. A teetotaler and nonsmoker, Gehrig was completely devoted to mom (pictured below in 1927). Niven Busch Jr. submitted this profile of Gehrig for the Aug. 10 issue. Excerpts:

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After appearing as Al Jolson’s dying son in The Singing Fool (1928), the child actor Davey Lee returned to the screen for yet another Jolson weeper, 1929’s Say It With Songs. Once again portraying Jolson’s son—this time crippled and rendered dumb after being hit by a truck—he miraculously recovers at the end of the film. The New Yorker wasn’t having any of this sentimental treacle, especially served up for a second time…

LET’S PRAY FOR A BIG BOX OFFICE…Davey Lee and Al Jolson in Say It With Songs. (IMDB)

…and the magazine hoped for something a bit less somber from Jolson in the future, suggesting that he “give the tragic muse the air”…

In the same issue of the New Yorker, this advertisement touted Jolson’s recording of “Little Pal” from Say It With Songs (note the blackface image of Jolson—his unfortunate trademark back in the day)…

…happily, there were other movies that offered less schmaltzy diversions, including Norma Shearer’s comedy-drama The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, in which Shearer portrayed the jewel thief Fay Cheyney…

OH BASIL YOU ANIMAL…Theatre card for The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. (IMDB)

…often cast as a heavy in silent films, it was the “talkies” that made William Powell a star, his pleasant voice more suited to a hero or leading man than a villain. In The Greene Murder Case, Powell portrayed amateur detective Philo Vance, a role that he played in another 1929 release, The Canary Murder Case (originally filmed as a silent in 1928), both based on mystery novels by S.S. Van Dine. Powell would portray Philo Vance in three more films from 1930 to 1933 until he took on the role of another amateur detective, Nick Charles, in 1934’s The Thin Man (a role he would reprise five times from 1936 to 1947)…

WHODUNNIT? YOUDUNNIT!…William Powell as detective Philo Vance, Florence Eldridge as Sibella Greene, and Jean Arthur as Ada Greene in 1929’s The Greene Murder Case. (IMDB)
KEEPING IT QUIET…William Powell as Philo Vance and Louise Brooks as “the Canary,” a scheming nightclub singer, in The Canary Murder Case. Brooks was a huge star in the silent era and the iconic flapper. According to IMDB, the film was shot as a silent in 1928, but producers decided to rework it as a more profitable “talkie.” When Brooks refused to return from Germany (where she was filming Pandora’s Box) to dub the movie, Paramount spread the word that Brooks’ voice was not suited to sound film, although later productions made by Brooks proved this to be wrong. Actress Margaret Livingston ultimately supplied Brooks’ voice for Canary. 

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From Our Advertisers

We look at some advertisements from the August 17 issue, including this one from Past Blue Ribbon. Note that nowhere in the ad is the word “beer” used, this being a “near-beer” with less than 1% alcohol content by volume. In addition to making cheese (a Velveeta-like product), Pabst hoped to keep its company alive by selling this “brew” during the unusually hot summer of 1929…

…and with that blazing sun advertisers also promoted a number of face creams and powders to those “enjoying the sunny outdoor life,” including this two-page spread from Richard Hudnut and Poudre Le Débutclick to enlarge

…the outdoor life could also be enjoyed in a convertible Packard 640, a car that was a cut above a Lincoln or Cadillac, and was considered by some to be America’s answer to the Rolls Royce…

A 1929 Packard 640 Convertible. This particular model can be had today for about $130,000. (Hemmings Motor News)

…I found this ad in the back pages interesting for its crude design yet overt appeal to snobbishness with this haughty pair…

…and here is what the Park Lane looked like when it opened in 1924…

Circa 1924 advertisement from the Sargent lock and hardware company touting its fixtures in the new Park Lane hotel apartments. At right, circa 1924 image from The American Architect depicting the Park Lane’s dining room. The building is long gone, razed some time in the 1960s to make way for an office tower. (Pinterest)

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This week’s featured illustration is by Constantin Alajalov, who depicted a summer scene from the Southampton Beach Club…click to enlarge…

…our cartoonists from the Aug. 10 issue include Helen Hokinson, who looked at the challenges of Americans abroad…

I. Klein observed the changing mores of movie houses (a couple of “damns” were apparently uttered in the talking pictures of 1929)…

…and Leonard Dove offered up a double entendre of sorts…

…cartoons for the Aug. 17 issue included a peek behind the scenes at a motivational speaker courtesy Peter Arno

Kindl had some fun with the juxtaposition of a matron and a flapper hat…

…and for reference, the cloche hat called a “Scalawag” was featured in this ad by Knox in the March 30, 1929 New Yorker

Garrett Price portrayed the antics of an ungrateful trust fund brat, who probably did not have that million dollars after the market crash…

…and this fellow, depicted by Mary Petty, who doubtless would be less nonchalant come Oct. 28, or what we know as “Black Monday”…

Next Time: Hooray for Hollywood…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While You Were Away

During the Roaring Twenties New Yorkers took a wrecking ball to much of their past, and at a breathtaking pace that left many residents little time to ponder what was lost.

March 30, 1929 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Writer and cultural critic Gilbert Seldes succinctly summed up this spirit of the times in a tongue-in-cheek “reminiscence” of the “old” New York—that is, how the city appeared the previous fall before he left to spend the winter in Bermuda:

NOW WHERE WILL I GET A WALDORF SALAD? Writer Gilbert Seldes (top left) ticked off some of the many changes to his city while he was away for the winter, including (clockwise, from top right), the murder of racketeer Arnold Rothstein; the planned demolition of the Waldorf Astoria to make room for the Empire State Building (photo of the partially demolished hotel); and perhaps the first song to be overplayed on the radio ad nauseumAl Jolson’s “Sonny Boy.” (Wikipedia, Daily News, New York Public Library, musicals101.com)

A member of the intellectual elite but also a strong advocate for cultural democracy, Seldes began writing for the New Yorker in late 1925 and would be a frequent contributor through 1936. In 1937 he would join CBS as its first director of television programs, and would also become one of television’s first critics thanks to his 1937 Atlantic Monthly article, “The ‘Errors’ of Television.” (Note: There were only 50 experimental TV sets in the New York area in 1937, and the first commercially available sets weren’t sold until 1939). In 1958—when there would be 42 million U.S. households with a television—Seldes would serve as the host of NBC’s The Subject is Jazz.

THE SUBJECT IS JAZZ host Gilbert Seldes in 1958 visiting with the show’s producer, George Norford; at right, Seldes interviewing Duke Ellington. (Getty Images)

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Peggy Bacon Did It All

Another early contributor to the New Yorker was Peggy Bacon, who displayed her sharp wit in her nearly 50 articles and poems for the magazine from 1926 to 1950. But Bacon was also well-known for displaying her talent and wit in the many paintings and illustrations she created throughout her long career. The New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton sang her praises in the March 30, 1929 issue after visiting her show at the Weyhe Gallery.

A FEW IDEAS was the title of this 1927 drypoint work featured in Peggy Bacon’s Weyhe Gallery show. At right, Bacon, circa 1920s. (artnet.com/wikipedia)
A sampling of Peggy Bacon drypoint works from the 1920s, clockwise, from top: Frenzied Effort, 1925; Vanity, 1929; Penguin Island, 1926. (Brooklyn Museum/Artnet/1stdibs.com)

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The March 30 profile featured aviation innovator Giuseppe Mario Bellanca, who in 1922 designed the first enclosed-cabin monoplane in the U.S. Perhaps even more significant, his design in 1913 of a plane with a propeller in front, a wing in the middle and tail at the end set the standard for all aircraft built since. (Before 1913 many planes were propelled from the rear, with the “tail” projected in front of the craft). The profile writer, William Weimer (with art by Hugo Gellert) admired Bellanca’s ability to stand toe-to-toe with the mighty du Pont family:

Bellanca founded the Roos-Bellanca Aircraft Company in Omaha in 1927, and was featured on the cover of Time. In 1929 he created the Delaware-based Bellanca Aircraft Corporation of America in a financial partnership with the du Ponts.

AVIATION PIONEER Giuseppe Mario Bellanca (center) at the new Bellanca Airfield in New Castle, Delaware, 1928. Bellanca’s planes would establish numerous records for altitude, endurance, and speed. (Delaware Public Archives)

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Showing Some Restraint

In his “Sky Line” column, the New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka “T-Square”) praised an award-winning 1928 apartment at 3 East 84th Street for its contemporary charm and “fine restraint.” Designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, the 9-story building was commissioned by Joseph Medill Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News. The design would be influential in Hood’s much more ambitious projects two years later—the Daily News Building (1930) and Rockefeller Center (1931).


The Raymond Hood– and John Mead Howells-designed 3 East 84th Street. Top right, the front entrance; and bottom right, ceiling’s silver leaf squares. (Susan DeMark–mindfulwalker.com)

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Advertisers in the March 30 issue offered various garments for the gentleman, including this sports-country ensemble at left from Finchley and a custom lounging robe from Macy’s…

…and for fashionable, amusingly mischievous woman there was the new “Scalawag” hat by Knox (ad illustrated by the great Carl Erickson)

…Blue Moon’s blonde fairy girl was one of the Jazz Age’s most recognizable labels…here she is matched with an Art Deco-inspired spectrum of stocking colors…

…Ligget & Myers Tobacco Company joined the ranks of sophisticated advertisers who touted a product—in this case Fatima cigarettes—without actually showing the product…

…on the other hand, American Tobacco Company, the makers of Lucky Strike, made doubly sure you wouldn’t forget that bright red bullseye, or Rosalie Adele Nelson, “The Original Lucky Poster Girl”…

Nelson’s image for Lucky Strike was almost as ubiquitous as the fairy in the Blue Moon ads. Apparently she was also a member the Nelson family of circus acrobats and performed her own signature act with baby elephants:

Rosalie Adele Nelson with her baby elephant act, 1929 (eBay)

Philip Morris took an entirely different (and unusual) approach to selling its relatively new brand of Marlboro cigarettes by touting the achievements of Gretchen Colnik, winner of the “1928 Marlboro Contest for Distinguished Handwriting….”

Like Rosalie Adele Nelson, Gretchen Colnik would go on to minor fame of her own. She was managing editor of the Great Neck, NY, newspaper before returning to her hometown—Milwaukee, Wisconsin. From 1952 to 1966 Gretchen was the Martha Stewart of Milwaukee, hosting a TV show that provided advice on interior design, food and crafts. “The Gretchen Colnik Show” was sponsored by Mrs. Karl’s Bread.

Our cartoon is by Leonard Dove, who looks in on an architect at work:

The Cruelest Month

The film reviews for the April 6, 1929 issue found the New Yorker once again at odds with Hollywood and favoring cinematic products from the Old World.

April 6, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

In the case it was a French film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which even today is regarded as a cinematic landmark.

A LOT AT STAKE…American poster for The Passion of Joan of Arc; at right, Maria Falconetti in the title role. (Wikipedia/Film Forum)

The New Yorker review praised the film as “one of the few of the year which merit serious attention”…

On the other hand, there were the latest products from Hollywood, which stood on the other side of a “vast abyss” from the French film:

HO HUM FOR HOLLYWOOD…At left, Mary Dugan (Norma Shearer) with her conniving lawyer, Edward West (Lewis Stone) in The Trial of Mary Dugan; Lewis Stone was a apparently a busy man in the late 1920s—here he is again (center image), this time portraying John Sterling, a tea plantation investor lacking the mojo to keep up with his much younger wife, Lillie (Greta Garbo) in Wild Orchids; and at right, Janet Gaynor as a little Dutch girl in Christina, a film now considered lost. Click image to enlarge (normashearer.com/pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

The April 6 issue found Charlie Chaplin getting in on the action of Old Gold cigarette endorsements…

…while Curtiss Flying Service thought it might interest some of the more well-heeled New Yorker readers in the purchase of an airplane…

…a couple weeks later, in the April 20 issue, the New Yorker would make this observation about the ad in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and finally, our cartoon by R. Van Buren, looking in on yet another sugar daddy and his much younger companion on a night out…

Next Time: Generation of Vipers…

Fun in the Sun

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Cover of Jan. 2, 1926 issue by Rea Irvin.

As we begin a new year of The New Yorker, it strikes me how little things have changed in 90 years, at least when it comes to human nature–wars and rumors of wars, celebrity gossip, the latest fads in music and fashion, fights over politics and religion. It’s all still with us. And yet, a person from 2015 would be seem like an extraterrestrial in 1926.

January 1926 was still a year and a half away from Lindbergh’s Atlantic flight. Today we think so little of jumping on a plane that soars seven miles above the earth and whisks us anywhere in a matter of hours. In fact we mostly gripe about it. I like comedian Louis C.K.’s response to a man’s complaint about a runway delay: “What happened then, did you fly through the air like a bird, incredibly? Did you soar into the clouds, impossibly?…You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.”

Fokker F7 cabin KLM
The Fokker F7. If you could even afford to fly in the mid-1920s, this is your ride. Buckle up! (Top, aviation history.com; bottom, dutchaviation.nl)

People in 1926 lived very differently (for better or worse), with far fewer distractions. No TV, only sporadic music on mono-tinny radios (or from mostly scratchy, hand-cranked records). Electric lights, but only if you lived in a city or town. The metropolis was noisy, but there was also silence. No cellphones or earphones, no CNN or ESPN blaring from every vertical surface. Your health? Forget it. Going to the dentist, regardless of your station in life, was a chamber of horrors. Ditto the doctor. Ever look at an antique doctor’s bag? Just some brown bottles, weird clamps and a saw. Penicillin wouldn’t be discovered until 1928, and for some reason lots of people died back then of peritonitis. It would claim both Rudolph Valentino and Harry Houdini in 1926. Finally, if you lived in 1926 you probably thought The War to End All Wars was just that. Only a few of the very sage saw the annihilation yet to come.

Anyway…

I titled this edition “Fun in the Sun” because the Jan. 2 issue opens with back-to-back ads enticing freezing New Yorkers to go south for the winter:

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These were boom years for places like Miami Beach, formerly a quiet backwater but fast becoming a popular vacation getaway for New Yorkers and other Northeasterners. During the 1920s many wealthy industrialists from the north and Midwest also built their winter homes there.

1923
Japanese tea garden at the Flamingo Hotel in 1923 – Miami Beach (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)
1925
Bathers on Miami Beach in 1925 (State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

In other items, the “Reporter at Large” Morris Markey commented on the death of Frank Munsey, American newspaper and magazine publisher. Munsey had a reputation for extreme frugality and was widely disliked by employees who blamed him for their “shoddy recompense.” Munsey is credited with the idea of using new high-speed printing presses to print cheap, ragged pulp magazines, especially for working-class readers. Magazines such as Munsey and Argosy were filled with various genres of action and adventure fiction.

munsey_192501
Munsey’s Magazine January 1925 (philsp.com)

Morris Markey wrote that Munsey would fire people on a whim for reasons that included being left-handed, too old, too young, or too fat. During his ownership of the New York Sun, Munsey gave “a peremptory order that all fat men, being inefficient and probably lazy, be expelled from the Sun staff.” Markey was no fan of Munsey as is clear in this excerpt:

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Theodore Shane continued to be disappointed with films coming out of Hollywood. He described Norma Shearer’s latest picture His Secretary as “poor.”

His Secretary - Hobart Henley - 1925
A stenographer, and a vamp! Norma Shearer in His Secretary, 1925 (silent beauties)

The film was about a humble stenographer who suddenly transforms into a ravishing sex symbol, a “Cinderella theme” that Shane believed had been thoroughly worn out by the actress. He was also underwhelmed by the return to the screen of William S. Hart, once a big star of the early silents.

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TUMBLEWEEDS_Silent_Western_Lobby_Card_1_William_S._Hart-600x471
The old cowboy isn’t done yet, durn it! (silenthollywood.com)

I have written several entries about the changing face of Fifth Avenue (the old mansions being destroyed, that is). Here is Robert Benchley’s take on the subject:

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To close, an illustrated feature by Helen Hokinson, once again showing us how a college student of the 1920s looks (to my eyes anyway) as ancient and remote as a mastodon:

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Next time: Ben Hur Bric-à-brac

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