Prophet of Doom

The October 1929 stock market crash took most people by surprise, but one man, Roger Babson, knew all along it was coming…thanks to Sir Isaac Newton

Feb. 15, 1930 cover by Peter Arno.

Babson (1875-1967) is perhaps best known today as the man who predicted the market crash and the Great Depression that followed. He employed an economic assessment tool called the “Babsonchart” that was based on Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the Feb. 15, 1929 “Profile” (titled “Prophet of Doom”) Henry Pringle tried to make sense of this eccentric businessman, who would go on to wage war against gravity itself:

TOLD YOU SO…Illustration by Hugo Gellert for the profile on Roger Babson, who famously predicted the stock market crash; at right, Babson circa 1930. (Gravity Research Foundation)
BIG THINKER…Roger Babson dedicates the world’s largest spinning globe at Babson College in 1955; at right, the globe as it appears today. Founded by Babson in 1919, Babson College is often ranked as the most prestigious entrepreneurship college in the U.S. (babson.edu/Wikipedia)

Pringle concluded his profile on a confused note, wondering if his subject — a product of sober New England stock — could possibly be a socialist in disguise…

In any case, it is difficult to assign Babson to any one category. Some considered him a genius and visionary, while others thought him a crackpot, particularly in the late 1940s when, following the death of a grandson by drowning, he began to wage war against gravity itself. In 1948 essay “Gravity – Our Enemy Number One,” he wrote: “Broken hips and other broken bones as well as numerous circulatory, intestinal and other internal troubles are directly due to the people’s inability to counteract Gravity at a critical moment.”

That same year Babson founded the Gravity Research Foundation to expedite the discovery of a “gravity shield.” The foundation is still in operation, but rather than seeking to block gravity it works to better understand it. It continues to hold an annual essay prize contest — remarkably, five of its winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. The essay contest’s 1971 winner was none other than physicist Stephen Hawking.

ROCK STAR…Clockwise, from top left: Roger Babson at home with a portrait of Sir Isaac Newton; Babson was the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1940; Babson provided charitable assistance to unemployed stonecutters in Gloucester, Mass., during the Great Depression, commissioning them to carve inspirational inscriptions on more than 20 boulders near the abandoned settlement of Dogtown. (centennial.babson.edu/Wikipedia)

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An Imperfect Romance

Born in the midst of the Jazz Age, it would seem that the New Yorker would have been a perfect fit for the most prominent chronicler of that era, F. Scott Fitzgerald. But it was mostly not to be: Fitzgerald would publish just two poems and three humorous shorts in the New Yorker between 1929 and 1937, including “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées” in Feb. 15 issue.

In all fairness, the New Yorker wasn’t exactly enamored of the young author. In its book review section for the May 23, 1925 issue, the magazine singled out three books for review, the first (and longest) review was devoted to James Boyd’s historical novel Drums. This was followed by a brief review of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the reviewer writing that the book revived his interest in the author but “not in a Byronic promise he probably never had,” and referred to the character of Jay Gatsby as “a good deal of a nut.”

The following year Fitzgerald was the subject of a New Yorker profile titled “That Sad Young Man.” In the magazine’s March 12, 2017 issue, Erin Overbey and Joshua Rothman note that the profile (by John Mosher) would be called “snarky” in today’s lingo. They also point out that “Fitzgerald, for his part, appeared to take a rather snobbish view of Harold Ross’s new publication, referring to the short stories he published in it as “hors d’oeuvres.”

With that, here is one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “hors d’oeuvres” … “Salesmanship in the Champs-Élysées.”

SOUR GRAPES…The Champs-Elysées in 1929; F. Scott Fitzgerald with his daughter, Scottie, and wife Zelda in Paris in 1925. Despite being products of the Jazz Age, the author and the New Yorker were mostly at odds. In a letter to his daughter, Scottie, Fitzgerald advised that she expand her knowledge of literature “instead of skimming Life + The New Yorker.”  (fr.wikibooks.org/AP)

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The Empire-less State

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White pondered the possibilities of a large lot at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street previously occupied by the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Although construction of the Empire State Building would soon commence at the site, White mused about other possibilities…

LIGHT THERE BE LIGHT…E.B. White found the newly excavated space at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street (former site of the Waldorf-Astoria) to be a refreshing change. It would be short-lived, as the first beams of the Empire State Building would begin to rise from the site in March 1930. (NYPL Digital Gallery)

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Westminster People Show

Although it’s now customary to retire Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show winners, back in 1930 a wire terrier called Pendley Calling of Blarney won Best of Show in 1930 and won the title again the following year. Alice Frankforter was on hand for the event, but found the people at the show every bit as diverting as the animals. Some excerpts…

DOGGONE FUN…The 1932 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square Garden, NYC. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

REIGN OF TERRIER…Wire Fox Terrier Pendley Calling of Blarney, left, won back-to-back Westminster Kennel Club Best of Show titles in 1930-31. At right, King’s Best of Show win in February 2019 made him the 15th Wire Fox Terrier in Westminster history to earn the top prize. Terriers are by far the winningest breed at Westminster. (aka.org)

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Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Robert Benchley struck a pre-emptive pose in his review of a new Broadway play titled Rebound — written by his good friend (and fellow Algonquin Round Table alumnus) Donald Ogden Stewart (1894-1980) — and responded to “a chorus of yawps” that accused him of log-rolling…

A FRIEND INDEED…Robert Benchley (right) said his friendship with playwright and screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart (left) had no influence over his review of Stewart’s latest play, Rebound. It seems Benchley was in safe territory here, since Stewart’s output was generally high in quality. Indeed, in 1940 Stewart would win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for the The Philadelphia Story.

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Georgia On His Mind

The opening of the Museum of Modern Art in late 1929 had a profound effect on the New Yorker’s art critic Murdock Pemberton. In the beginning he dismissed the museum as just another place for the old money crowd to throw parties, but with the opening of its third exhibition, “Painting in Paris” — which featured an extensive display of the works of French modernists — Pemberton began to come around to the idea that this new MoMA was a place to see groundbreaking works of art. In his Feb. 15 column Pemberton looked beyond France for signs of talented modernists in the States, and found only one who stood out — Georgia O’Keeffe.

MOD COUPLE…Clockwise, from left, Alfred Stieglitz attached this photograph to a letter for Georgia O’Keeffe, dated July 10, 1929; Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition of Paintings (1919-1934), at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery, 1935; O’Keeffe’s Trees at Glorieta, New Mexico, 1929. (Beinecke Library, Yale/Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation)

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From Our Advertisers

Just as hemlines were dropping after the stock market crash, so were the brims of women’s hats — the flapper caps of the 1920s now sprouted droopy ears…

…this ad for Chase and Sanborn coffee featured a weirdly distended image of the writer and humorist Irvin Cobb

…Cobb as he actually appeared, circa 1930…

(talesofmytery.blogspot.com)

…G. Washington coffee, on the other hand, continued to draw from the New Yorker’s stable of cartoonists, including Garrett Price, for its illustrated ads…

…I was surprised to see this ad for two reasons: I wasn’t aware floss was in common use 90 years ago, or that it once came in the handle of a toothbrush…

…and then we have this sad little back page ad (just above a tiny ad for piano lessons) promoting Peggy Joyce’s ghostwritten “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. A former Ziegfeld girl and occasional actress who cultivated fame for fame’s sake, Joyce (1893-1957) was mostly known for her six marriages and extravagant lifestyle. By feeding the media a steady stream of scandals and other adventures (she often received reporters in her bedroom, dressed in a see-through negligee) she remained in the celebrity spotlight throughout the 1920s…

Peggy Joyce in 1923; cover of the first edition of her “tell all” — Men, Marriage and Me. Celebrated in the 1920’s as a swinging golddigger, her fame quickly evaporated into the mists of the Great Depression. (Wikipedia/Abe Books)

…speaking of celebrity, advertisers were so eager for endorsements of the famous that even “Mrs. Ring Lardner” (Ellis Abbott) got a piece of the action…

…as travel by airplane became more fashionable, automobile manufacturers increasingly paired their products with flying machines…

…for those who wished to stay on the ground, the Pickwick-Greyhound bus system featured “Nite Coaches” with 14 sleeping compartments (for 28 passengers), hot and cold water in each compartment, and hot meals served by stewards…

…on to our comics, I. Klein illustrated the excitement of heavyweight boxing…

Perry Barlow paid a visit to a writer and his dimwitted visitor…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a prep school dance…

Barbara Shermund demonstrated the finer points of beauty…

…and we end with Peter Arno, and one woman’s plan for a costume party…

Next Time: Five Years in the Making…

Is Sex Necessary?

James Thurber and E.B. White shared an office at the New Yorker that has been described as “the size of a hall bedroom.” This proximity doubtless supported a rich exchange of ideas that coalesced in their 1929 bestseller, Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do.

Sept. 28, 1929 cover by Julian De Miskey.

A spoof of popular sex manuals and how-to books that dealt with Freudian theories, the book featured chapters (alternately written by Thurber and White) that delved into pseudo-sexual conditions such as “Frigidity in Men” — the title of a chapter by White excerpted in the Sept. 28, 1929 issue of the New Yorker…

Expanding on the condition known as “recessive knee,” White coined the term “Fuller’s retort,” and claimed it was “now a common phrase in the realm of psychotherapy”…

THE ARTIST EMERGES…Although James Thurber had yet to publish one of his drawings in the New Yorker magazine, Is Sex Necessary? featured 42 of them, including the illustration at right that demonstrated the male greeting posture. (brainpickings.org)

No other editor besides founder Harold Ross did more to give the New Yorker its shape and voice than Katharine Angell, who recommended to Ross the hiring of both White and Thurber. It is worth noting that White would marry Angell in the same month, November 1929, as the publication of Is Sex Necessary? In their case, sex was necessary, as Katharine would give birth to their son, Joel White, the following year.

DYNAMIC TRIO…Katharine Angell (inset) would be instrumental in bringing both E.B. White (left) and James Thurber to the New Yorker. (Pinterest/Wikipedia)

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A New Rabbit Hole

In other news from the world of publishing, “The Talk of the Town” (also largely a product of Thurber and White) noted the publication of a new edition of Alice in Wonderland that featured a re-drawn Alice with bobbed hair and the slender profile of a 1920s flapper. White mused:

NEW ALICE, MEET OLD ALICE…A 1929 edition of Alice and Wonderland featured a Jazz Age Alice (left) as rendered by Willy Pogany. At right, Sir John Tenniel’s original Alice, from the 1866 edition. (comicartfans.com/girlmuseum.org)

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Rise of the Boob Tube

Also in “Talk,” it was reported that the BBC would be putting television on the air “five times a week for a half an hour.” The broadcasts, on a single channel, featured speeches, comic monologues and popular songs. The technology did not allow sound and image to be transmitted together, so “viewers” (there were only a handful of sets) first heard each piece in audio, followed by a mute moving image:

COMMERCIAL-FREE…Early television promotor Sydney Moseley (left) and two employees of the Baird Television Development Co. watch the inaugural television broadcast on a “Noah’s Ark Televisor,” Sept. 30, 1929. The televisor was the invention of British TV pioneer John Logie Baird (1888-1946). (scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk)

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Mutt & Jeff & Peggy

This odd little item in “Talk” focused on the literary interests of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, an actress and dancer best known for her lavish lifestyle and multiple marriages and affairs. She was a Kardashian of her day — famous for being famous. Despite her flamboyant ways, Joyce seemed to have some rather pedestrian tastes, at least when it came to her reading pleasure…

JEEVES, BRING ME SOME LIGHT READING…Peggy Hopkins Joyce (left) might have preferred the high life, but her tastes in reading seemed more of the rabble. She is pictured here in her Hollywood debut, the 1926 silent film The Skyrocket. The film bombed, and Joyce made just one more screen appearance before moving on to other things. (Bizarre Los Angeles/mycomicshop.com)

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Ring Cycle

Ring Lardner contributed a casual titled “Large Coffee,” in which he checks into a hotel to escape life’s distractions and get some writing done. The piece consisted of diary entries largely concerned with Lardner’s inability to get a proper order of coffee. He began with an editor’s note that described how his corpse was found in the room, along with the diary. Some excerpts:

COFFEE AND CIGARETTES helped fuel the genius of writer Ring Lardner. (Brittanica)

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Master of the Screwball

Preston Sturges (1898-1959) was known for taking the screwball comedy and turning into something more than a simple farce. Reviewer Robert Benchley saw the potential in this young Broadway producer, whose second play, Strictly Dishonorable, opened to great acclaim:

KEEPING IT LIGHT…Tullio Carminati as Count Di Ruvo and Muriel Kirkland as Isabelle Parry in Broadway’s Strictly Dishonorable, 1929. Producer Preston Sturges reportedly wrote the hit play in just six days. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Have No Fear

Morris Markey (1899-1950) often took on the lurid and sensationalist reporting of his day in a column he established at the New Yorker titled “Reporter at Large.” In his Sept. 28 column titled “Fear, Inc.” Markey chided everyone from the newspapers and Hollywood to the headline-grabbing NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen, and painted a picture of organized crime that was less violent and glamorous, and a lot more mundane…

MAKE SURE YOU GET MY GOOD SIDE…NYC Police Commissioner Grover Whalen loved to make headlines with his “get tough on crime” approach. He was was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” (wnyc.org)

Markey suggested that rather than screeching tires and blazing Tommy guns, most of the crime in the city was just the humdrum of making money…

Sadly, Markey himself would meet a violent end, dying of a gunshot wound at the age of 51. It is unclear whether it was self-inflicted.

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The Last Laugh

The year 1929 saw the passing of Minnie Marx, the beloved mother of the Marx Brothers comedy troupe. Alexander Woollcott offered this tribute in his “Shouts and Murmurs” column…

MY LITTLE CLOWNS…Minnie Marx with her sons, The Marx Brothers, circa 1920. (Find a Grave)

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From Our Advertisers

Harper’s Bazar began weekly publication in 1867, catering to women in the middle and upper classes. The magazine was a frequent advertiser in the upstart New Yorker, no doubt perceiving a considerable overlap among its readers. This full page ad in the Sept. 28 issue of the New Yorker featured a column by the Bazar’s Paris fashion correspondent, Marjorie Howard

…no doubt the New Yorker’s own fashion editor, Lois Long (1901-1974), read her rival’s column with great interest, and, like the magazine she wrote for, Long was the young upstart compared to the veteran Howard (1878-1958). However, according to future New Yorker editor William Shawn, Long was the superior writer. Upon Long’s death in 1974, Shawn said “Lois Long invented fashion criticism,” adding that she “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.” Here is a brief excerpt from Long’s fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” in the Sept. 28 issue…

OF A FASHION…Majorie Howard (left) served as fashion editor for Harper’s Bazar in the late 1920s and 1930s. Lois Long (right) wrote the New Yorker fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” from 1927 to 1970. (findagrave.com/Vassar College)

…looking at some of the ads from the magazine’s back pages, here’s one from Scribner’s announcing the publication of A Farewell to Arms (a first edition for only $2.50)…

…the back pages of the New Yorker near the theater section were filled with signature ads promoting various entertainments…

…this ad from Kargère referenced an exchange from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray: “They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris,” chuckled Sir Thomas…” Really! And where do bad Americans go to when they die?” inquired the Duchess. “They go to America,” murmured Lord Henry…

…several ads and filler illustrations from the Sept. 28 issue featured posh folks dressed for fox hunting season, the makers of Spud cigarettes among them…

…this ad from Frigidaire featured an illustration by Herbert Roese, whose style at the time somewhat resembled Peter Arno’s

…for comparison, an Arno cartoon from 1930…

From Peter Arno’s book Hullabaloo, 1930. (attemptedbloggery.blogspot.com)

and Arno’s full-page contribution to the Sept. 28 issue…

…another artist at the New Yorker who along with Arno often received a full page for her work was Helen Hokinson, here looking in on life at Columbia U…

…and there were artists who were lucky to get any space at all, including Kent Starrett, who probably drew on his own experiences at the New Yorker’s front office for this entry…

…and finally, Garrett Price illustrated the challenges of the “house call”…

Next Time: American Royalty…

 

The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

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Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

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Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

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How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…