Robeson’s Othello

In 1930s America there were few if any opportunities for black actors to perform in mainstream stage or screen productions unless they conformed to racial stereotypes. An exception was Paul Robeson.

June 21, 1930 cover by Gardner Rea.

In 1930 Robeson (1898-1976) won rave reviews for his performance in Shakespeare’s Othello. That performance, however, took place in London, not New York, which London correspondent Anthony Gibbs took pains to point out in his dispatch for the June 21, 1930 New Yorker.

English actress Peggy Ashcroft as Desdemona and Paul Robeson as Othello in London’s Savoy Theatre production of Othello in 1930. Although only 22 at the time, Ashcroft was an established Shakespearean actress. The 32-year-old Robeson was already famous as both an athlete and actor. He was twice named a consensus All-American in football (Rutgers) and was the class valedictorian. He also received a law degree from Columbia while playing in the NFL. In 1930 he was already known to London audiences, having previously appeared in a 1928  London production of the American musical Show Boat. (theshakespeareblog.com)
CENTER STAGE…Left to right: Maurice Browne (Iago), Paul Robeson (Othello) and Peggy Ashcroft (Desdemona) in Othello at the Savoy Theatre, 1930. Maurice Browne was also the play’s producer; his over-the-top portrayal of Iago and his wife’s incompetent stage direction hurt the production, but Robeson nevertheless received high praise for his performance. (britishstageandscreen.tumblr.com)

Although the performance was a triumph for Robeson, the production itself was a mess. The play’s producer, Maurice Browne, enlisted his wife, Ellen van Volkenburg, to direct (Peggy Ashcroft later called her “a pretentious dud”). Writing in The Guardian (Sept. 3, 2003), Samantha Ellis observes: “Recognising that his Othello transcended the ropey production, the audience gave Robeson 20 curtain calls. He reprised the role all over the world and never lost his pleasure in it. For Robeson, it was more than just a part: it was, as he once said, “killing two birds with one stone. I’m acting and I’m talking for the negroes in the way only Shakespeare can.”

Robeson’s Othello would not make it to New York until 1943. It would run for almost 300 performances, setting an all-time record run for a Shakespearean play on Broadway.

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Restoring Order

In the aftermath of Grover Whalen’s disastrous (and sometimes violent) run as New York City Police Commissioner, E.B. White and his fellow New Yorkers welcomed the steady hand of Edward P. Mulrooney (1874-1960) to the helm:

THE COMMISH…Edward P. Mulrooney in a 1930s portrait by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

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The Commander

American author and lecturer Virgilia Peterson Ross profiled Evangeline Cory Booth (1865 – 1950), who would become the fourth General of the Salvation Army in 1934. She was the first woman to hold that post. An excerpt:

Ralph Barton returned to provide this caricature for the profile, one of the last works he would create for the New Yorker before his untimely death…

HEIRESS TO A LEGACY…William Booth, an English Methodist preacher who founded The Salvation Army and became its first General, poses with his grand-daughter Evangeline Cory Booth in this 1908 postcard image. (National Portrait Gallery)

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Home of the Dome

Architecture critic George “T-Square” Chappell was gladdened by the sight of scaffolding atop St. Bartholomew’s Church, which would finally get its dome to complete architect Bertram Goodhue’s vision…

NOW YOU SEE IT…Clockwise, from top left, St. Bartholomew’s Church at 325 Park Avenue, sans dome, in 1928; the church with dome in the 1950s; interior and exterior views of dome. (nyago.com/bostonvalley.com)

…Chappell also commented on the emergence of the Chrysler Building’s blindingly shiny dome and interior appointments…

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT…The Chrysler Building’s gleaming spire emerged in all its glory in June 1930. At right, an elevator in the building’s lobby. (Wikipedia)

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Below the Belt

It wasn’t Dempsey-Tunney, but the bout between Max Schmeling (1905-2005) and Jack Sharkey (1902-1994) was the next best thing for boxing fans. The World Heavyweight Championship had been vacant since Gene Tunney’s retirement in 1928, and Sharkey and Schmeling had emerged as the sport’s No. 1 and 2 contenders.

The bout ended in a controversial decision: Although Sharkey won the first three rounds, he was disqualified after he landed a punch below the belt late in the fourth round. Schmeling became the first boxer to win the World Heavyweight Championship on a foul. The New Yorker’s Niven Busch Jr. (with illustration by Johan Bull) offered these thoughts on the fight’s disappointing outcome:

LOW BLOW…Although Jack Sharkey (far right) led after three rounds, a low blow in the fourth delivered the World Heavyweight Championship to German boxer Max Schmeling (left). Sharkey would claim the title two years later in a rematch with Schmeling. Although boxing isn’t the healthiest pursuit, both men lived into their 90s; Schmeling died in 2005 just shy of his 100th birthday. (Wikipedia/boxrec.com/thefightcity.com)

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One Of Ours

The New Yorker included this brief review of a collection of short fiction pieces by Dorothy Parker, herself a literary critic of some renown at the New Yorker

DOROTHY’S LAMENTATIONS…The New Yorker’s Dorothy Parker published this collection of short fiction in 1930.

…and on to our advertisers, this ad appeared on the opposite page of the review…

…speaking of ads, the makers of Marlboro cigarettes continued to sponsor gimmicky penmanship and writing contests to promote their deadly product…

…while promoters of the Empire State Building (still under construction) continued to draw on the historical significance of the building’s Midtown location…

…on to our cartoons, Garrett Price pondered the very real challenge of guiding a massive Zeppelin to the planned mooring mast atop the Empire State…

…a portent of what would happen to the Hindenburg just seven years later…

…the New Yorker made clever use of typesetting for this I. Klein entry…

John Murray Anderson found humor in contrasting the grand with the mundane…

Kindl eavesdropped on the small talk of a couple of ash haulers…

…and William Crawford Galbraith found humor at the public pool…

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On to the June 28 issue, with a cover featuring a satirical kakemono-style illustration by Rea Irvin, who was fond of Japanese scroll art…

June 28, 1930 cover by Rea Irvin.

Film critic John Mosher checked out the new documentary on Admiral Richard Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole…

A BYRD WITH WINGS…A Paramount Pictures movie poster promoting the 1930 documentary With Byrd at the South Pole; still images from the film at right. (Wikipedia/YouTube)

…if you’d like to see the actual film, here it is on YouTube…

“The Talk of the Town” also made note of the Byrd’s expedition and homecoming, contrasting his upcoming book, Little America, with the four-volume historical work planned by popular historian Will Durant.

In collaboration with his wife, Ariel, Durant would end up publishing an eleven-volume history of civilization (four million words across nearly 10,000 pages), written between 1935 and 1975. Will Durant was at work on a twelfth volume when he died in 1981 at age 96.

Admiral Richard Byrd’s Little America, left, and the 11-volume The Story of Civilization, by Will and Ariel Durant.

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American Lenin

The June 28 profile, written by Alva Johnston, featured radical American labor organizer and Marxist politician William Z. Foster. Despite Johnston’s portrayal of Foster as something of a genial pinko, in reality Foster was a strong supporter of Joseph Stalin and a dedicated and loyal ally of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party until his death in 1961. The Soviets even gave him a state funeral, with Nikita Khrushchev personally heading an honor guard in Red Square. An excerpt of Johnston’s profile:

RED AS A ROSE…Left, a campaign photo of William Z. Foster when he headed the Communist Party ticket in the 1928 U.S. presidential election; at right, illustration of Foster for the profile, by Abe Birnbaum.

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And to close…a colorful advertisement in the June 28 issue from Rex Cole…from the signature it appears to be the work of Mario Cooper, but this doesn’t look at all like his other work…

…and a two-page Rea Irvin cartoon, which demonstrates his visual storytelling skills…

click to enlarge

Next Time…Happy Fourth!

 

 

The Tastemakers

Modernism in interior design gained a wider audience in the 1920s thanks in part to a series of major exhibitions sponsored by some of New York City’s leading department stores.

Sept. 29, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Although the New Yorker continued to feature advertisements for traditional styles of furniture, such as this one from the Sept. 22, 1928 issue…

…it was clear that the appetites of the city’s younger “smart set” were being whetted by retailers such as Macy’s, who in May 1927 hosted an “Exposition of Art in Trade” that included 100 exhibitors of modern European and American silver, pottery, books, textiles and furniture. The following spring Macy’s hosted the “International Exposition of Art in Industry,” where more than 250,000 visitors saw the work of more than 300 exhibitors from six countries. (This blog’s opening photo features a 1928 sideboard by Kem Weber, one of the exhibitors at Macy’s 1928 show. Photo courtesy Cooper Hewitt Collection).

TRENDSETTERS…R. H. Macy & Co. hosted the International Exposition of Art in Industry in the spring of 1928. At right, an interior scene at the exposition, with a chair designed by Walter Von Nessen. (socalarchhistory.blogspot.com/wright20.com)

Macy’s inspired other exhibitions by such retailers as Wanamaker’s, Abraham & Straus, Frederick Loeser, Lord & Taylor, and B. Altman & Co., which advertised its “20th Century Taste in the New Expression of the Arts in Home Furnishings” in the Sept. 29, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

Writer Bertram Bloch reviewed the exhibit in the Oct. 6 issue. Although he suggested that he had some “hard, cruel things” to say about the show, overall he believed it something not to be missed. Excerpts:

THE SMART LOOK…B. Altman & Company showcased designs including, clockwise, from upper left, a dining room by Charles B. Falls; a conversation room by Steele Savage; a bedroom by Charles B. Falls; and a salon section by Dominique. (Art Institute of Chicago)
FADED GLORY…Clockwise, from upper left, The B. Altman flagship store at 34th Street and 5th Avenue and a closer view of the front entrance in 1915; closed in 1989, the flagship store is now used by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, among other tenants. The mahogany-paneled Fifth Avenue foyer survives intact, however the exterior looks a bit hosed-down, with the Ionic capitals removed from the columns as well as the lintels that banded the windows and the cornice on top. (Museum of the City of New York/daytoninmanhattan)

While on the topic of modern furniture, Ilonka Karasz, who painted a total of 186 New Yorker covers from 1924 to 1973, showcased her own furniture designs (along with other artists from the American Designers’ Gallery), at an exhibition the following month.

NEW YORKER COVER ARTIST Ilonka Karasz designed this dining room for the American Designers Gallery Exhibition in October 1928.  (Art Institute of Chicago)

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The Singing Fool

The New Yorker generally detested the introduction of sound in motion pictures, but for some reason didn’t mind it so much when Al Jolson opened his mouth. This time he followed up his blackface performance in The Jazz Singer with another blackface routine in The Singing Fool. E.B. White wrote about the film’s big opening in “The Talk of the Town”…

…and in the magazine’s film review section, yet more praise for Jolson, whose singing apparently compensated for the mediocre dialogue:

SERVED WITH A SIDE OF HAM…One of a series of promo slides for The Singing Fool, featuring Al Jolson, child actor Davey Lee, and the saccharine lyrics for Sonny Boy, said to be the first pop record to sell more than million copies. (nitrateville.com)
THAT WAS ENTERTAINMENT…Theatre lobby card for 1928’s The Singing Fool. (IMDB)

The Sept. 29 issue illustrates the dichotomy in how the New Yorker depicted African Americans in the 1920s. Blacks in the magazine’s cartoons and illustrations were often portrayed as minstrel characters, picaninnies or mammies. However, a serious artist like Paul Robeson received a much different treatment. Indeed, the magazine shamed the racism of a fictional character in Dorothy Parker’s short story “Arrangement in Black and White” (Oct. 8, 1927), in which a wealthy, white woman condescends to a black singer who might well have been modeled after Robeson. The journalist and author Mildred Gilman profiled Robeson in the very same issue that praised Jolson’s tired blackface routine. An excerpt, accompanied by a Hugo Gellert illustration:

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Next Time Wear a Disguise

The newlywed Gene Tunney (also newly retired from boxing) was spending some time in Europe, probably hoping to get a break from the adoring crowds back in the States. Upon entering a French café with his friend, the author Thornton Wilder, he soon discovered that adoring crowds awaited him on the other side of the pond, as related by the New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet “Genêt” Flanner:

ENJOYING SOME DOWN TIME…The boxer Gene Tunney, left, and the writer George Bernard Shaw on a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (Associated Press)

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From Our Advertisers

Although by 1928 Americans (and particularly New Yorkers) were flouting Prohibition laws, alcoholic beverages still could not be legally produced or marketed (except for “religious” or “medicinal” purposes). Advertisers, however, found clever ways to market non-alcoholic beverages like ginger ale with the allure of liquor or fine wine. But then again, few were actually drinking straight ginger ale…

And if you formerly grew grapes for winemaking, what’s preventing you from selling unpasteurized grape juice that remains free from fermentation “as long as the factory seal remains unbroken”…? Also, note the not-so-subtle cocktail shaker at the top left of the photo:

And for our cartoons, Barbara Shermund explored the modern ways of love…

…while Peter Arno continued probing the comic imbalance of rich old men and their young mistresses…

Next Time: A Bird’s Eye View…