The Road to 1931

The New Yorker entered its sixth year in 1931, and despite the deepening Depression managed to stay afloat and even gain new subscribers. Perhaps more than ever folks needed that weekly dose of levity the magazine ably supplied.

Rea Irvin rang out the old and welcomed the new with back-to-back covers for the Dec. 27, 1930 and Jan. 3, 1931 issues. The second cover commemorated the New York Auto Salon, mentioned later in this blog entry.

That isn’t to say the magazine’s contributors donned rose-colored glasses. Rather, they commiserated with their fellow Americans:

CRANKY COUPLETS…Ogden Nash lent his droll verse to the nation’s economic woes. In 1931, while working as an editor at Doubleday, Nash submitted a number of poems to the New Yorker and spent three months working on the magazine’s editorial staff. (poeticous.com)

Over the course of 1930 many Americans, including Ogden Nash, woke to the fact that their business and political leaders were ill-suited to lift them out of the economic mess, and were likely responsible for it in the first place. At the top of the list was President Herbert Hoover, who was profiled in the New Yorker in three installments beginning with the Dec. 27 issue. This brief excerpt gives you a glimpse into a very different White House 89 years ago:

The first installment of the profile was accompanied by a Cyrus Baldridge portrait of the president (left), but the final two installments featured a less-than-flattering Abe Birnbaum rendering that first appeared in the New Yorker in the March 2, 1929 issue:

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Vorse Was a Force

Social critic, labor activist and novelist Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966) was no fan of Herbert Hoover or wealthy business tycoons, and in the first decades of the 20th century joined with Lincoln Steffens and other muckraking journalists in advocating for social reform. Vorse, however, also had a background in fiction writing and in observational pieces like the one below (excerpts) in which she commented on the rustic old ladies she found everywhere in the city:

FOR THE CAUSE…Mary Heaton Vorse (left) with fellow activists preparing to leave on a relief expedition to aid striking Kentucky miners, 1932. At right, a 1925 drawing of Vorse by Hugo Gellert. (nysut.org/Smithsonian)

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The Mystic

Before the Beatles made the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a famed Transcendental Meditation guru in the 1960s, there was George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, a Russian/Greek/Armenian spiritual teacher of the “Fourth Way,” which promised a path to a higher state of consciousness and full human potential. Gurdjieff also enjoyed living in a French chateau and taking trips to New York to share his wisdom with eager Americans, including famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “The Talk of the Town” had these observations on the visiting mystic:

HE COULD SEE THINGS…George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, in an undated photo.

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Sunny Days

Forget about financial woes or spiritual dilemmas. What are you going to wear next summer? Fashion writer Lois Long (“On and Off the Avenue”) asked the question and looked to the south for some answers:

…numerous ads peppered the Dec. 27 issue urging Manhattan’s snowbirds to dress appropriately for the warmer climes…

…and operators of “PlaneTrains” promised to get them there as quickly as possible…

…and if you were headed to Cuba you could stay at the brand new National Hotel…

…here’s what it looked like three years ago when I was in Havana…I can guarantee you the hotel service was WAY better in 1931…

…whether home or abroad, New Yorkers were celebrating the New Year by “dancing to the melodies of Old Vienna” and smoking like chimneys…

…a popular New Year’s Eve destination was the The Roosevelt Hotel, where Guy Lombardo’s orchestra helped ring in the New Year from 1929 (radio’s first nationwide New Year’s Eve broadcast) to 1959…

I stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in late December, and found Lombardo still presiding over the bar…

…we also find New Year’s revelry in the cartoons, with Mary Petty

Izzy Klein

Otto Soglow...

…and Leonard Dove

…and for those who stayed home, we have this scene of domestic bliss from Don Herold

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On to the Jan. 3, 1931 issue, we have Howard Brubaker (“Of All Things”) waxing sour on the state of the economy…

…so what a better way to cheer up than to look at shiny new cars, especially the ones almost no one could afford? The New Yorker paid another visit to the New York Automobile Salon at the Grand Central Palace…

…according to the article, 1931 was “a streamline year,” and leading the way was the REO motor car company, which despite its innovative ways would drop its car line altogether in 1936 — a casualty of the Depression…

FLOWING FENDERS…The 1931 REO Royale was a trendsetter, introducing streamlining designs. The Great Depression would cause REO to abandon the manufacture of automobiles in 1936. (historicvehicle.org)

…over at the Chrysler Building, which served as that corporation’s headquarters from 1930 until the mid-1950s, new cars were on display on the building’s first two floors…

CATHEDRAL OF CARS…The first two floors of the Chrysler Building served as an auto showroom during the building’s first decade. (Wikipedia/thewelcomeblog.com)

…we segue to our advertisements, many from car companies touting their displays at the New York Automobile Salon. Like REO, Marmon was noted for various innovations, including the introduction of the rear-view mirror. It also manufactured a stunning 16-cylinder automobile that was on display at the 1931 Salon. But also like REO, the Depression proved too much for Marmon, and it was defunct by 1933…

SLEEK…The 1931 Marmon Sixteen. (RM Auctions)

…another car company that would fall to the Depression was the luxury brand Pierce Arrow. Without a lower-priced car in its lineup to provide cash flow, the company ceased operation by 1938…

…by contrast, the Chrysler Corporation had several low-priced models to help it survive the lean years and enable it to produce its luxury model, the Imperial…

ANOTHER FIRST…Chrysler was also known for its innovative ways. A custom version of the Chrysler Imperial Eight included a dictaphone. (hemmings.com)

…the Hudson Motor Car Company is long gone, but in 1930 it was the third largest carmaker after Ford and Chevrolet, and instead of luxury it touted the affordability of its cars, especially its low-priced Essex line, priced $1,000 less than its predecessor from ten years earlier. The $595 Essex would be comparable to a $9,000 to $10,000 car today (by comparison, the 1931 Marmon or Imperial would set you back somewhere between $3,000 and $5,000, roughly equivalent to a $46,000 – $78,000 range today)…

…so let’s say the Depression has wiped you out and you can’t even afford an Essex…well you could try to “smoke your way back to normalcy”…

…or be like this pair, who seem content with their Chesterfields…

…of course the movies were another means of escape from the cruel world, and Paramount’s Publix Theatres promised plenty of sex to ease troubled minds…

PRE-CODE WORLD…During a brief period of the early sound era, many films used both sex and violence to attract audiences to theaters. The Publix Theatres ad above implied that these three films had plenty of sex, or “it” — clockwise, from top left, Fredric March ran around in his skivvies in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930); Mary Brian and Ina Claire portrayed acting sisters Gwen and Julie Cavendish in The Royal Family of Broadway; David Manners and Ruth Chatterton shared an embrace in The Right to Love (1930); and Marlene Dietrich lured a schoolmaster into a life of madness and despair in The Blue Angel (1929-30).

…and we close with our cartoonists…Reginald Marsh heralded the new year with this two-page spread depicting the heavens glorifying dental hygiene…

Leonard Dove inked two cartoons featuring table talk…

E. McNerney continued the New Yorker tradition of cartoons featuring rich old men and their gold diggers…

Gardner Rea pondered the value of kitsch in a regal setting…

A.S. Foster looked in on a crowd of John Does at a speakeasy…

…and Lillian Reed took us shopping with a very specific request…

Next Time: Requiem For the Flapper…

 

Ziegfeld’s Folly

Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr knew how to pack a Broadway theater, and from 1907 to 1932 he staged a number of revues and plays (most notably Showboat) that featured lavish costumes and a bevy of chorus girls.

Dec. 6, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin, depicting a peephole view of a speakeasy during the holidays.

When his latest show, Smiles, hit the stage of the Ziegfeld Theatre on Nov. 18, 1930, it was greeted by an audience that had endured the first year of the Great Depression. Ziegfeld’s entertainments, on the other hand, were more associated with the high times of the Roaring Twenties. So even the popular brother-sister dance team from Omaha — Fred and Adele Astaire — seemed a bit old hat.

GO WITH THE FLO…Broadway impresario Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr with his Follies cast, 1931. (Wall Street Journal)

Or so it seemed to Robert Benchley, who observed in “The Wayward Press” that most of his readers could draw pictures of the Astaires from memory. But what really irked Benchley was the way William Randolph Hearst manipulated his mighty newspaper empire to promote Ziegfeld’s Smiles in a way that made the show appear to be the biggest hit of the year.

Ziegfeld Theatre was built with Hearst’s financial backing, so the media mogul was determined that the show would be a success, commanding his editors and writers to lavish praise on the tepid production, which would close in less than two months as a box office failure.

SAY CHEESE…Program for Smiles featuring Fred Astaire, Marilyn Miller and Adele Astaire. At right, publicity photo for Smiles featuring Fred and Marilyn. (Playbill/Pinterest)

For the Astaires, they were nearing the end of their 27-year collaboration — Adele would retire from the stage in 1932 to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, and in 1934 Fred would pair up with Ginger Rogers for the first of nine films they would make together for RKO. Marilyn Miller, one of the most popular Broadway stars of the 1920s and early 1930s, would also seek her fortune in films, but would only make three. Alcoholism and persistent sinus infections would cut her life short in 1936 — she would die at age 37 from complications following nasal surgery.

BRIEF CAREER…Marilyn Miller in 1931’s Her Majesty, Love, one of just three films she would make before her death in 1936. (IMDB)

Benchley revealed how some of Hearst’s reporters responded to the edict from their boss:

TWEAKING HIS NOSE…Walter Winchell, left, registered his protest against his boss, William Randolph Hearst, by laying it on thick in his column. (IMDB/BBC)
THE FOLLY OF FOLLIES…Robert Benchley (left) cried foul regarding Hearst’s attempt to prop up a lousy show; Ogden Nash (right) found humor in the “immorality” of Ziegfeld’s productions.  (Wikipedia/Notable Biographies)

On a related note, Ogden Nash also zeroed in on Ziegfeld’s latest show, turning the tables on religious zealots who found the Follies immoral. An excerpt:

And finally, one more theater-related item: a drawing by Al Frueh highlighting the melodrama On The Spot, which ran from Oct. 29, 1930 through March 1931 at the Forrest Theatre.

BETTER THAN ZIEGFELD, THIS…At right, Crane Wilbur and Anna May Wong in the melodrama On The Spot, which opened Oct. 29, 1930 at the Forrest Theatre. (New Yorker/Pinterest)

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In the Dec. 6, 1930 “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White shared his observations on a new type of chair that doubled as a dog house…

…and he wasn’t making it up, because the chair he described was featured in this ad from the same issue…

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Drunk History

In the fall of 1930 Scribner’s magazine published a series of three articles titled “If Booth Had Missed Lincoln,” If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” and “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America.” The New Yorker’s James Thurber claimed to be the author of a fourth article, “If Grant Had Been Drinking At Appomattox.” An excerpt:

REVISIONIST…James Thurber circa 1930. (thurberhouse.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The rolling pin was often deployed as a prop — especially in the comics — to illustrate marital discord; the makers of Hoffman ginger ale used the common trope to sell their fizzy drink…

…for reference, Maggie gives it to Jiggs in this comic book cover from 1953…

(Good Girl Comics)

…the issue was stuffed with ads for Christmas shoppers, ranging from colorful plastic tumblers…

…to “unforgettable” appliances…

…to a variety of accessories at Wanamaker’s…

…Macy’s offered this pajama and robe combination for (insufferable) little boys who “strive for sartorial effect”…

…while Burdine’s of Miami urged snowbirds to purchase multiple wardrobes to remain fashionable throughout the winter season…

…and in stark contrast, this ad appealed for donations to help the jobless…

…our cartoons are supplied by Art Young

…the ever reliable Barbara Shermund

…and equally reliable Peter Arno

…and Helen Hokinson

…and we close with this gem by Garrett Price

Next Time: A Blue Angel…