Dream Cars

Whether or not you could afford a new car in Depression-era New York, you could afford to take your mind off the hard times for a few hours and visit the annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace.

Jan. 16, 1932 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The 1932 exhibition featured many familiar brands, and others that would not survive the decade. Bolstered in part by the largess of General Motors and its downscale LaSalles, Cadillac could offer a pricey edition of the Fleetwood (at $5,542, roughly equivalent to $100K today), but most car makers featured models with reduced prices and/or smaller engines, as well as new technologies and design features they hoped would attract buyers of modest means. Excerpts from the New Yorker’s “Motors” column:

CAN’T TOUCH THIS…The Cadillac V16 Fleetwood sat atop the American car world in 1932. (classicdriver.com)
LOOK, BUT DON’T BUY…The New Yorker noted the crowds gathered around the Studebaker –produced “Rockne” at the National Automobile Show. Named for the famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (who died in a 1931 plane crash), this 1932 model attracted plenty of gawkers at the show but few buyers. It was soon discontinued, and leftover Rocknes were disassembled and sent to Norway, where they were reassembled and sold to Scandinavian buyers. (conceptcarz.com)
DOUBLE VISION…The 1932 Oakland Roadster (left) marked the end of the Oakland Motorcar Company, which had been previously acquired by General Motors. That same year Oakland was reborn as the Pontiac division, and the Oakland Roadster was reimagined as the 1932 Pontiac Model 302 (right). (Hemmings/justamericanautomobiles.com)
PALACE OF DREAMS…Grand Central Palace (top right) sat at Lexington Ave. between 46th and 47th Streets. A favorite locale for manufacturers to display their latest wares, it was demolished in 1963; at left, images from the 1935 National Automobile Show; bottom right, 1932 copy of The Wheel, produced by Studebaker for distribution at auto shows. (freelibrary.org/chicagology.com)

Whether folks were able to shell out more than $5,000 for a Caddy or a mere $700 for Plymouth, many left the show with nothing more than dreams for better days. Howard Brubaker summed it up thusly in his “Of All Things” column:

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Darling Lily

Coloratura soprano Lily Pons (1898 – 1976) was not well-known in her native France when she took the Metropolitan Opera stage by storm in 1931 — she would become the Met’s principal soprano and, in 1940, an American citizen. The singer was profiled by Janet Flanner in the Jan. 16 issue (caricature by Miguel Covarrubias). Excerpts:

FRENCH TOAST OF THE TOWN…Coloratura soprano Lily Pons was particularly associated with the title roles of Lakmé (pictured above, mid-1930s), and Lucia di Lammermoor. Pons was a principal soprano at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for 30 years, appearing 300 times from 1931 until 1960. (Pinterest/YouTube)

If you have a few minutes, check out Lily Pon’s 1935 performance of “The Bell Song” from the film I Dream Too Much, which co-starred Henry Fonda. Although the sound quality is not the greatest, you can still get a pretty good idea why Met audiences adored her.

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Fantasy Bridge

Satirist Ring Lardner found something rotten in the behavior of robber barons and politicians in the midst of the Depression, so he imagined a bridge game that brought together banker J.P. Morgan (Jr), John D. Rockefeller (then the richest person in America and perhaps the world), Sen. Reed Smoot of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (a catalyst for the Depression), and social worker Jane Addams. Excerpts:

DEAL ME OUT…Ring Lardner addressed the wages of greed through a fantasy bridge game. (Dallas Morning News)

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From Our Advertisers

If you were one of J.P. Morgan’s bankers, you might have considered hopping on a United flight instead of taking the train — within 20 years, airlines would make a serious dent into railroad’s corporate travel business…

…and if you were a successful banker, your daughter or granddaughter might have been an aspiring deb with some very specific needs…

…the Little King also had some specific fashion needs, as Otto Soglow brings us to the cartoon section…

…with the Auto Show in town, Helen Hokinson got her girls into the conversation…

…the “wizard control” they refer to was Buick’s gimmick to attract more women drivers to their product…here’s an ad from the Feb. 6 issue of the New Yorker:

…back to our cartoons with James Thurber, and the “war” that continued to brew between men and women (note artwork on the wall)…

Al Freuh offered his perspective on meagre predictions for prosperity…

…as did one of William Steig’s precocious children…

…and Helen again with another privileged view of the downtrodden…

Barbara Shermund showed us one woman’s interpretation of “belonging”…

…and Denys Wortman gave us one salesman who probably dreamed of some solitary drinking…

…on to our Jan. 23, 1932 issue…

Jan. 23, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

…and this item in “The Talk of the Town,” which noted the challenges of publishing a book about Adolf Hitler

…and a few pages later, we are treated to an E.B. White “song” written for delegates to the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments which was being convened in Geneva, Switzerland…

Delegates from sixty countries attended the Geneva conference. They were there to consider the German demand that other nations disarm to the same levels that had been imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles. The conference deadlocked by the summer, and when it was reconvened in February 1933 Hitler had just assumed power in Germany. By fall 1933 Germany withdrew from both the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations, and the stage was set for another world war.

Here is a 1933 photo of the delegates to the Disarmament Conference before things went south:

(wdl.org)

A detail of the photo (below) reveals the identity of the tiny man seated at center: the representative from Germany — Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Just twelve years hence Goebbels would find himself trapped with Hitler and Eva Braun in a Berlin bunker as Soviet troops demolished the city above them. Goebbels and his wife, Magda, would poison their six children, and then themselves as the Third Reich crumbled to ashes.

A final note: The delegates weren’t alone in Geneva, as a number of peace organizations sent observers and demonstrators to the conference, many of them women:

APPEALS TO DEAF EARS…Women’s disarmament campaigner in Geneva, c.1932; right, a poster created by Dutch artist Giele Roelofs for the Northern Friends Peace Board and others. (London School of Economics/armingallsides.org.uk)

We’ll give the last word to Howard Brubaker in Jan. 30 “Of All Things” column:

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From Our Advertisers

With the National Automobile Show wrapping up, the Grand Central Palace prepared to welcome exhibitors for the annual Motor Boat Show…

…the woman in this next ad might have been better off in a boat than on the beach…I’m wondering if the artist had any idea that his or her illustration would be used to promote coffee…it’s hard to tell what is going on here…apparently a young woman has almost drowned and is receiving oxygen, or maybe she doesn’t really need it, and the perverted lifeguard and cop just want to ogle the poor beachgoer, who seems bored by the whole predicament…

…there is also something vaguely sexual going on in this ad for Vicks (what is he looking out for in panel four?)…the artist (the cartoon is signed “Len”) seems to be channeling one of Rea Irvin’s series cartoons…

…in the early 20th century it was fashionable to smoke imported luxury Egyptian cigarettes, or counterfeits like Ramses II, produced in the U.S. by the Stephano Brothers…

…the makers of Camel were among the most successful counterfeiters of Egyptian  cigarettes — the camel, pyramids and palm tree motifs were no mistake, but by 1932 this established brand (launched in 1913) went less for snob appeal and more for the active, fresh-faced youths whose pink lungs were highly coveted by R.J. Reynolds…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with James Thurber and some more sexual tension…

Garrett Price found a young hostess eager to to please…

Perry Barlow introduced us to a young man who (almost) never forgets a face…

William Crawford Galbraith dined with the uppers, not necessarily known for their literary sophistication…

Barbara Shermund gave us a proud collector who managed to evade the Puritans in U.S. Customs…

William Steig showed us pride of a different sort…

…and another by Steig displayed the antics of one of his “Small Fry”…

…and we end with Helen Hokinson, who found a local women’s club joining the debate raging far away at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva…

Next Time: Back in the USSR…

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We first encountered critic Lewis Mumford in the June 30, 1931 issue of the New Yorker when he roundly excoriated plans for Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 issue once again found him in a surly mood, this time regarding the decorative arts and how they had been poorly displayed at the otherwise esteemed Metropolitan Museum.

Nov. 14, 1931 cover by B.H. Jackson.

To say that Mumford was displeased with the Met’s decorative arts exhibition would be an understatement:

BED, BATH AND BEYOND…Let’s just say Lewis Mumford probably needed a stiff drink after strolling through the Met’s latest displays of the decorative arts. (Library of Congress)
PAST IMPERFECT…Norman Bel Geddes was known for his theatrical, futuristic visions of streamlined everything, but the radio he exhibited at the Met was more Queen Victoria’s speed in Mumford’s view. (Pinterest)

Mumford pondered this sudden decline: was it the Depression, or just a streak of bad taste? And what could be done with the purveyors of bad taste, short of shooting them? Let’s read on…

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET…Mumford suggested that Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry in the late 1920’s had more vision than the Met’s 1931 offering. Above, living room furniture designed by Houbert et Petit exhibited in a showroom during the 1928 “International Exposition of Art in Industry” at Macy’s department store. (Library of Congress)
LESS THAN A PRETTY FACE?…The streamlined form of Norman Bel Geddes’ “House of Tomorrow” probably wowed a few readers of Ladies home Journal in April 1931, but critic Lewis Mumford was likely not among them, as he often criticized Bel Geddes for his theatricality at the expense of good taste and functionality (see first excerpt above). Mumford was especially critical of Bel Geddes’ glorification of the automobile and the highway at the expense of livable cities. (Pinterest)

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Peter, We Have Your Back

When your colleague has a play made from his book, and it closes after just seven performances, what can you say, especially if you are theater critic for the New Yorker? Well, here is what Robert Benchley did:

THAT’S SHOW BIZ…Here Goes The Bride, based on a Peter Arno book, closed after just seven performances. However, as a cartoonist, Arno was at the top of his game. (Britannica/Ebay)

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Depression? Who needs it? If you had the means, and didn’t lose your shirt in the 1929 crash, you could get away from it all and book passage to the Bahamas, where you could drink legally, soak up some sun, and forget about those lengthening bread lines you occasionally glanced from the window of your town car…

…well, that bootleg gin was a mind eraser…

Helen Hokinson continued to offer her cartooning skills to the folks at Frigidaire…

…on to our cartoons, the George Washington Bridge drew the envy of some out-of-towners, as illustrated by Garrett Price

…nearly 90 years ago folks were almost as nuts about college football as they are now, except for Perry Barlow’s lone dowager, who would rather be sitting in her parlor with a cup of tea…

Gardner Rea explored the wonders of heredity…

Otto Soglow’s Little King employed a guard ready for any emergency…

Barbara Shermund gave us an artist with a god complex…

James Thurber continued to probe the nuances of the sexes…

Peter Arno sketched this two-page spread with the caption: J.G’s a card all right when he gets to New York

…and from the mouth of babes, we have these observations of the underworld from Chon Day

…and Denys Wortman

On to the Nov. 21 issue, which featured the last in a series of eleven covers Helen Hokinson contributed to the New Yorker in 1931. The covers featured one of Hokinson’s “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise, which began with the March 2 issue and ended on Nov. 21 with a stop at the customs office, and a nosy customs officer…

Nov. 21, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Bread & Circuses

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reported on a recent editorial in the Columbia Spectator, that university’s student newspaper, which took issue with the professionalization and “furtive hypocrisy” of college football (if only they could see us now). White observed:

In 1931, Columbia was a football power, and the Ivy League was a big-time conference. To the editors of the Spectator, this was not a point of pride, which they made clear in this 89-year-old editorial that could have been written yesterday:

Clippings from Columbia Spectator Archive
JUST GETTING MY KICKS…1931 press photo of Columbia University football star Ralph Hewitt, who still holds the school record for the longest field goal — a 53-yarder he dropped kicked in a 1930 upset victory over Cornell. Hewitt went on to coach high school sports.

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Sorry, Charlie

William “Billy” Haines was a popular actor during the 1920s and early 30s a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932, portraying arrogant but likable characters in a string of pictures that ended abruptly when Haines refused to deny his homosexuality and was cut loose by MGM. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Haines at his Santa Barbara home, where he entertained a mysterious visitor:

THE INTERIOR LIFE…The stylish actor William Haines in a 1926 publicity shot taken at his Hollywood home. Haines would abandon acting in the 1930s and take up a successful career as an interior designer. (Photofest)

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Coveted Coiffeur

Speaking of stylish, writer Bessie Breuer wrote an admiring profile of Polish hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski), considered the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. The opening paragraph:

A CUT ABOVE…In 1914 famed hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski) invented the “shingle cut” (at left, sported by actress Louise Brooks in the 1920s), which was all the rage during the Roaring Twenties. (Pinterest)

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The Look of Relief

In “The Talk of the Town” E.B. White noted that a familiar face was gracing advertisements for President Herbert Hoover’s Unemployment Relief Agency:

I NEVER FORGET A FACE…E.B. White referred to this ad featuring an unnamed woman who had a familiar look about her. (period paper.com)

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More His Style

We return again to Lewis Mumford, this time cheered by the sight of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, designed by Cory & Cory. An excerpt from “The Sky Line” column:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT…Lewis Mumford praised the striking effect of the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s alternating bands of brick, concrete and steel. (Atlas of Places)

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The Chump

John Mosher was neither moved nor charmed by the appearance of little Jackie Cooper in The Champ, a tearjerker story of an alcoholic ex-boxer (Wallace Beery) struggling to provide for his son. He did, however, appreciate the boy’s ability to carry “on his little shoulders a heavy and tedious and lengthy story.”

BUMMER…John Mosher had little to like about King Vidor’s The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Mosher was no doubt a bit dismayed when Beery received an Academy Award for his performance. (IMDB)

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A Wishful Christmas List

It was that time of the year when the New Yorker began running its lengthy features on possible gifts for Christmas. This excerpt caught my eye for what might have been possible in 1931 — buying a photographic print directly from Berenice Abbott or Nickolas Muray:

NO LUMP OF COAL, THIS…In 1931 it might have been quite possible to buy this print directly from photographer Berenice Abbott. Barclay Street, Hoboken Ferry 1931, is in MoMA’s photography collection.

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From Our Advertisers

It has been well-established in previous posts that Anglophilia ran rampant among New York’s smart set, and this advertisement from Saks provides everything we need to underscore the point…

…and the top hat mades another appearance in this spot for Lucky Strike, featuring an endorsement from actor Edmund Lowe...

…our cartoons featured a song-less songbird courtesy of Perry Barlow

…and from James Thurber, another creature with little appetite for song, let alone wine and women…

William Steig brought us back to the bleachers with another nonconformist…

Gluyas Williams gave us this sad sack all alone in the crowd…

Richard Decker sought to bring order to this court…

…and we end with Carl Rose, and this two-page cartoon illustrating a dicey parking challenge…

Next Time: Yankee Doodles…

 

Unnatural History

In my last post we visited the Central Park Zoo, circa 1931, and found a collection of animals displayed as curiosities in barren enclosures that in no way resembled natural habitats.

Aug. 29, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

It’s hard to say if those creatures were better or worse off than their cousins at the American Museum of Natural History, a short walk across the park to the northwest. Unlike the zoo, the tigers and rhinos at the museum were displayed in naturalistic, almost dreamlike settings. But then again they were dead; indeed, all that remained of them were their skins, skillfully fitted over skeletons of wood and clay.

SIMULACRUM…Clockwise, from top left, American Museum of Natural History staff mounting rhinoceros and Indian elephant, circa 1930; preparing African buffalo group diorama; staff cleaning elephant skin in preparation for mounting on a frame consisting of a skull and some wood. This would be covered with clay before the skin is fitted. (vintag.es)

E.B. White stopped by the famed museum to take a look at its new Asiatic Hall, and filed this report for “The Talk of the Town.”

The animals pictured below came from a couple of British big game hunters, gathered during expeditions in the 1910s and 1920s…

PLEASE HOLD STILL…American Museum of Natural History staff prepare the tiger group diorama in 1931. The display was in the new Asiatic Hall referred to by E.B. White. (vintage.es)
SURVIVORS OF A SORT…Nearly 90 years later, the tiger group is still on display at the American Museum of Natural History, now in the Hall of Biodiversity. (AMNH)
STILL THE SAME…This Asiatic leopard diorama, which so impressed E.B. White, also survives to this day, in the Hall of Asian Mammals at AMNH. (atlasobscura)
NEVER-ENDING BATTLE…The Sambar stag diorama, dating to 1911, is also mentioned by White in his article. (atlasobscura)

I am delighted that the AMNH (which I visited in December as an avid fan of diorama art) preserves these exhibits, which not only display animals — many now endangered — but also the artistry of painters, sculptors and taxidermists from a century ago. Sadly, many museums are scrapping these cultural treasures and replacing them with gaudy, interactive displays and video screens. An article in Newsweek (“Museum Dioramas Are as Endangered as the Animals They Contain,” Aug. 2, 2015) notes that around 2008 “the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., closed two diorama halls and reopened them with video screens, interactive features and stand-alone specimens where the dioramas had been.” In other words, the specimens were removed from naturalistic scenes and displayed as stand-alone curiosities, rather like those poor animals in the Central Park Zoo of yesteryear.

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Everyday Icons

Gilbert Seldes profiled industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (1904 – 1972), who along with contemporaries Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes was among celebrity designers of the midcentury. Like Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss was a well-known Broadway set designer who would go on to become an industrial designer in the era of streamlining. But unlike Loewy and Bel Geddes, Dreyfuss went well beyond mere styling, taking a practical, scientific approach to problems that would not only make products better looking, but also safer and more comfortable to use. An excerpt:

GOT MY START IN SHOW BIZ…Henry Dreyfuss in 1946, and his 1930-31 design of the RKO Theatre in Davenport, Iowa (now the Adler Theatre). (Wikipedia/qctimes.com)
ICONS OF EVERYDAY LIFE…Some of Dreyfuss’s designs included, top row: the Western Electric Model 500 telephone (center), which replaced the clunkier Model 300 (left) in 1950; the Hoover model 150 vacuum cleaner, from 1936; middle row: Dreyfuss designs for the New York Central Railroad’s streamlined Mercury train (1936); and the NYC Hudson locomotive for the Twentieth Century Limited (1938); bottom row: Dreyfuss designed things as varied as tractors for John Deere (1960); the Honeywell T87 circular wall thermostat (1953–present); and the Polaroid SX-70 Land camera (1972).

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Body-Building Barnum

Another well-known figure of the 1930s was Bernarr Macfadden (1868 – 1955), an early proponent of physical culture who would prefigure such notables as Charles Atlas, Jack LaLanne, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But none of them were quite like McFadden, who also created a pulp publishing empire (among his magazines: Liberty, True Detective, True Story, True Romances, Photoplay and the notorious tabloid newspaper The New York Evening Graphic).

READ ALL ABOUT IT…Macfadden’s Evening Graphic was all about scandal, and especially sex and murder.

Macfadden also established numerous “healthatoriums” across the East and Midwest, including (in 1931) his latest venture, the Physical Culture Hotel near Dansville, New York. E.B. White explained, in his “Notes and Comment”…

MCFADDEN SHOWS OFF HIS BOD in 1910 (left) at age 42, and at age 55 in 1923. (Wikipedia)
BEFORE AND AFTER…Mcfadden acquired the 1882 Jackson Sanatorium near Dansville, NY in 1931 and renamed it the Physical Culture Hotel. Circa 1930s images at top contrast with the condition of the property today — it fell into disrepair after MacFadden’s death in 1955, and closed for good in 1971. Known to locals as the “Castle on the Hill” in its heyday, it can still be glimpsed by motorists traveling on I-390. (bernarrmacfadden.com/abandonedplaces.livejournal.com)

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For the Birds

When I came across “Farewell to Birds,” on page 17, I thought for a moment it was one of James Thurber’s animal parodies (there was even a Thurber cartoon at the bottom of the page), but then I noticed our writer was Will Cuppy, (1884-1949) who wrote in the Thurber vein (Cuppy was ten years Thurber’s senior) and like Thurber, was a bit of a curmudgeon. From 1931 until his death Cuppy wrote satirical pieces for the New Yorker that were later collected into books (also like Thurber). Here is an excerpt from “Farewell to Birds.”

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Satirist Will Cuppy (center, in 1932) and two of his early books. How to be a Hermit (1929) was a humorous look at his life residing in a Jones Island seaside shack from 1921 to 1929 (he was escaping city noise and hayfever); How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes was a 1931 compilation of Cuppy’s articles, including the one above.

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Puttin’ on the Ritz

Lois Long, newly divorced from cartoonist Peter Arno, concluded her fashion column (“On and Off the Avenue”) by telling readers about her “swell new hairdo”…

HAVE A SEAT, LOIS…The perm room at Charles of the Ritz, 1932.

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Your Majesty

Speaking of new looks, Central Park West was boasting the addition of a new “skyscraper apartment building” called the Majestic. “The Sky Line” reported:

APTLY NAMED…The Majestic at Central Park West. (Pinterest)

Another building making its mark was the Parc Vendôme on West 57th, offering more than 600 apartments with annual rents ranging from $1,100 to $6,600. Condos in the same building today range from $495,000 to $5,495,000.

BREAD BOX INCLUDED…The Parc Vendôme on West 57th. (street easy.com)

From Our Advertisers

Henry Mandel, one of New York City’s most ambitious developers in the 1920s and early 30s, touted the Parc Vendôme in this advertisement…

…I wonder if Lois Long (see above) got one of these “dos” at the Ritz…I love the snob appeal of this ad — “The New Paris Way of Doing Your Hair”…

…which seemed to work…here is a random sample of Hollywood stars in 1931, all wearing the look…

DOING THE WAVE…From left, Tilly Losch, Constance Bennett, and Barbara Stanwyck.

…other ads appealing to the Continental lifestyle…a very understated yet elegant ad for Guerlain lipstick, and Nellie Harrington-Levine gave us a disinterested deb sporting “the wave,” a cigarette and a velvet dress…

…and Pond’s continued its parade of rich society women to sell its cold cream…here we are presented with “Mrs. Morgan Belmont,” aka Margaret Frances Andrews (1894 – 1945), a Newport socialite and prize-winning show dog breeder…

Andrews didn’t limit herself to cold cream, here appearing in a 1927 ad for Simmons mattresses…

Margaret Frances Andrews was a noted dog breeder, seen above at the Newport Dog Show around 1915; below, Andrews had a small role in the 1920 Mary Pickford film Way Down East. Andrews, at left, was credited as “Mrs. Morgan Belmont.”

…and we move on to this sad little ad from the back pages, featuring something called “Peeko,” which apparently mimicked the flavors of Rye, Gin and Rum…it must have tasted awful…

…our cartoons feature Perry Barlow, and I can’t quite tell if this guy is drinking a soda or some bootleg gin, which was often sold at select gas stations…

…a two-page sequence from Gardner Rea

Otto Soglow went fishing…

…and commiserated with a couple of unemployed guys whose plight is ignored by the celebrity-obsessed media…

Alan Dunn hit the lecture circuit…

Kemp Starrett sketched some wink-wink, nudge-nudge at the men’s store…

…and we close with James Thurber, and the trials of our elders…

Next Time: Bonfire of the Vanities…

Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

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Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

 *  *  *

On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

 *  *  *

Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)
I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.
ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

 *  *  *

Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

 *  *  *

Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…

 

Flying the Friendly Skies

A few posts ago (the April 11 issue) I wrote about E.B. White’s love of flying, and how his (and the nation’s) exuberance for aviation suddenly came crashing down along with Knute Rockne’s plane in a Kansas wheat field.

May 23, 1931 cover by Garrett Price.

The death of the famed Notre Dame football coach had White pondering a new, safer path for aviation that seemed to be embodied in a contraption called the autogiro. White had previously written about the potential of the autogiro back in 1929 (Dec. 7 issue). Half-helicopter and half-airplane, it was considered not only safer, but easier to fly, possibly opening up the sky to everyday commuters.

PHOTO OP…A Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro paid a visit to the White House on April 22, 1931. President Herbert Hoover is second from left. (Library of Congress)

On a windy day White boarded the autogiro at an airport “in awful Queens” — most likely the current site of La Guardia — and filed this report for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

In the article, White referenced this Pitcairn Autogiro ad from the April 25, 1931 issue. No doubt the folks at Pitcairn had the Rockne accident in mind when they touted the safety of their craft, which seemed impossible to crash.

White wasn’t the only one enthused about the autogiro. It was the darling of modernist architects and futurists of 1920s and 30s, who saw the flying machine taking its place alongside the automobile in the house of the future.

SWEET…The Swiss-born architect and designer William Lescaze rendered this “House of the Future” in the late 1920s with a bullet-shaped motorcar in the carport and an autogiro perched on the roof. (From blog author’s collection)
COMMONPLACE, AT LEAST IN THE IMAGINATION…The autogiro appealed to the average Joe or Jill as well, featured in magazines such as the U.K.’s Practical Mechanics (June 1934) and Meccano Magazine (May 1931). At center, a Pitcairn ad from 1930. (vtol.org)
WELL, IT WORKED…This two-seat AC-35 Autogiro (left) was developed for a Department of Commerce competition to create an “Aerial Model T.” James G. Ray, vice president and chief pilot of the Autogiro Company of America, landed the AC-35 in a small downtown park in Washington. D.C. on Oct. 2, 1936; at right, a still image from a 1936 film, Things to Come, which showed people of the year 2036 getting around in autogiros while wearing groovy futuristic togas. (Smithsonian/gutenberg.net.au)

Prompted by a New York Times editorial, White pondered the day when the air would be thick with personal aircraft:

AND THEY LAND WHERE?…The idea of city skies filled with flying commuters is nothing new, as this 1911 illustration by Richard Rummell from King’s Views of New York attests. (The Guardian)

White offered still more observations on aviation safety in his “Notes and Comment” column…

…and in the same column he also pondered the future in terms of his infant son, Joel White:

Sadly, Joel didn’t quite make it to the turn of the century — he died in 1997. He did, however, have a successful life as a noted naval architect and founder of the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.

ON GOLDEN POND…Joel White took to the water at a very young age, seen at left rowing a boat in an image from a home movie by E.B. and Katharine White; at right, Joel in his design office at the Brooklin Boat Yard, which he founded in 1960. (E.B. White Collection, Northeast Historic Film/Billy Black)

One more from E.B. White, this the lead item for his column which made jest of a debate at Yale over dropping the requirement for Latin. It says something to the effect that “Yale’s lead on the issue frees the rest of us to follow our fiduciary duty, toss tradition into the fire, and focus on practical matters such as traffic studies.” Latin students, please forgive me, and if someone can offer a better interpretation, please let me know.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The makers of Dawn “Ring-Lit” cigarettes seemed to have a winner on their hands with a smoke you could light like a match, but I can’t find any record of the company. Most likely this was a local brand sold at nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, and not through retail…

…Murad, on the other hand, was widely available, but the brand faded as tastes moved away from Turkish-style cigarettes…Rea Irvin illustrated a long series of ads for the brand, presenting various “embarrassing moments,” including this familiar trope involving office hijinx…

…summer was on the way, and the makers of Jantzen swimwear were establishing their brand as both the choice for athletes as well as the fashion-conscious…

…and you might have packed a Jantzen or two for this around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain, arranged through Canadian Pacific. Your fare, if you wanted an “apartment with a bath,” would set you back $3,950, or a cool $63,000 in today’s currency…

…if the cruise was too rich for your budget, perhaps you could put your money toward a durable good like a GE all-steel refrigerator. Note how GE contrasted its product with the overly complicated gadgets demonstrated on stage by popular vaudeville comedian Joe Cook

…on to the cartoons, William Steig gave us a glimpse of the important work taking place behind an exec’s closed doors…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on a couple’s travel plans…

Wallace Morgan took us on a trot through Central Park…

Perry Barlow probed labor relations in an estate garden (and a caption with the New Yorker’s signature diaeresis on the word “coöperation”)

…and Carl Kindl gave a look into the latest maneuvers in the canned soup wars…

…and we end our May 23 cartoons on a sad note, with Ralph Barton’s final contribution to the New Yorker, a “Hero of the Week” illustration featuring the Prince of Wales:

On May 19, 1931, Ralph Waldo Emerson Barton, who suffered from severe manic-depression, shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown Manhattan penthouse. He was 39 years old.

From the outside one would have thought Barton had a wonderful life as a successful artist who lived in style, who spent long vacations relaxing in France, and who hobnobbed with celebrities such as his close friend Charlie Chaplin.

To lose a longtime contributor and friend must have been a real blow to the staff at the New Yorker. Barton had been there from the beginning, his name appearing on the magazine’s first masthead as an advisory editor:

He was a prominent contributor to the magazine, from recurring features like his weekly take on the news — “The Graphic Section” — to theatrical caricatures that included clever caption-length reviews. He was married four times in his short life, most notably to actress Carlotta Monterey, his third (he was also her third marriage). She divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929.

In his suicide note, Barton wrote that he had irrevocably lost the only woman he ever loved, referring to Carlotta. But some speculate this claim was a final dramatic flourish, and that the end came because he feared he was on the verge of total insanity. He also wrote in the note: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife and house to house, visited great countries of the world—but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”

A CHARMED, TROUBLED LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Ralph Barton with the love of his life, his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey; Barton with best friend Charlie Chaplin, photographed by Nickolas Muray in 1927; after leaving Barton, Monterey would marry playwright Eugene O’Neill, who in a weird coincidence would become Chaplin’s father-in-law in 1943; a 1922 portrait of Carlotta by Barton; and a self-portrait from 1925, in the style of El Greco. “The human soul would be a hideous object if it were possible to lay it bare,” Barton wrote in 1926. (illustrationart.com/Pinterest/MCNY/curiator.com/npg.si.edu)

The following issue of the New Yorker (May 30, 1931)…

May 30, 1931 cover by Barney Tobey.

…featured this brief obituary on the bottom of page 28. I like this observation from the last line…his work had the rare and discomforting tingle of genius.

 *  *  *

The Gray & The Blue

We are reminded of the span of time and history that separate us from 1931 with this small item in “The Talk of the Town” that notes “fewer than a hundred” Civil War veterans were still alive in New York City. We just marked the 76th anniversary of D-Day, an event still 13 years into the future for this New Yorker writer:

OLD WARRIORS…Union Civil War veterans stand in front a monument at Gettysburg, July 12, 1931. (National Geographic)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

American brewers could sense the tide was turning on Prohibition laws, among them Augustus Busch, who took out a full page ad featuring “An Open Letter to the American People” that suggested a return to beer brewing would help relieve the unemployment situation caused by the Depression — note how the ad featured a variety of non-alcoholic products, but put the alcoholic beer at the head of the line…

…Walking east on 24th Street past Chelsea’s London Terrace and on to Madison Square Park is one of my favorite strolls in Manhattan…there is something almost cozy about walking by this massive building, once the largest apartment house in the world…Electrolux found it impressive enough to pair with their latest model refrigerator…

…a photo of London Terrace I took in December…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Otto Soglow’s Little King…

Richard Decker gave us another familiar comic trope, the postman and the housewife…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on some small talk…

Garrett Price explored the joys of parenthood…

…I’m surprised this got by Harold Ross, who could be a bit of a prude…we close with Peter Arno’s unique take on family life…

Next Time: Rooftop Romance…

The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley

Harold Ross founded the New Yorker as a sophisticated humor magazine, so when events in the city or the world took a serious turn, the writers and editors did their best to maintain its waggish tone.

May 16, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

After two cold-blooded killers engaged police in a heated gun battle from a West 91st Street rooming house, the May 16, 1931 “Talk of the Town” had this to say about the incident:

At right, a 1933 portrait of Portrait Of Edward Mulrooney, Police Commissioner of New York City, by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in finding entertainment value in the gun battle. Safety standards were quite different in the 1930s, so as police exchanged heavy gunfire with 18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, a crowd of 15,000 bystanders surrounded the scene, some just yards away from the action as the photo below attests:

THEY NEEDED SOCIAL DISTANCING HERE…On May 7, 1931, Francis “Two Gun” Crowley exchanged gunfire with police for nearly two hours from the fifth floor of a rooming house on West 91st Street. A force of 300 police fired an estimated 700 rounds at Crowley’s apartment while a crowd of 15,000 spectators surrounded the scene. Not sure why the police stood in a huddled mass beneath the window of the shooter. Strength in numbers, perhaps. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Another mention of the incident was in John Mosher’s film review column. He noted that the newsreel footage of the shoot-out was the best thing on the screen that week, and especially the moment when Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh emerged from the building in the clutches of the police:

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE…18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley (left) surrendered to police after suffering four gunshot wounds in the West 91st Street shootout, but would recover in time to be executed two months after his 19th birthday. At right, images from the newsreel show Crowley accomplice Fats Durringer being led away from the scene, along with Crowley’s girlfriend (bottom right), 16-year-old Helen Walsh. (Everett/YouTube)

By the end of the month Crowley was tried and convicted of the murder of a police officer, and his partner Fats Durringer was found guilty of brutally killing a dance hall hostess. Justice moved swiftly in those days, especially when the murder of a police officer was involved: On June 1, 1931 — just three weeks after the shoot-out with police — Crowley and Durringer were sentenced to death. Only six months would pass before Durringer took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley would follow his accomplice a few weeks later. As for Helen Walsh, she was released after testifying against Crowley and Durringer.

SHORT LIFE FOR SHORT KILLER…The diminutive Francis “Two Gun”Crowley, top, left, developed a habit of carrying more than one gun at all times, hence the nickname. At right, Crowley with officials at Sing Sing, where both he and partner Fats Durringer would meet their end in the electric chair. Below left, Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh. Crowley was barely 19 years old when he was executed on Jan. 21, 1932. Among his last words, he asked the warden for a rag to wipe off the electric chair before he took his seat. “I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it,” Crowley said, referring to Durringer, who had been executed weeks earlier, on Dec. 10, 1931. His request was denied. (www.swordandscale.com)

One final mention of the incident came from Ralph Barton, who named Police Commissioner Ed Mulrooney his “Hero of the Week”…

 *  *  *

Sub Sandwich

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey paid a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew were busy preparing a narrow, cramped submarine dubbed Nautilus for a trip beneath the ice of the North Pole. Markey marveled at all of the complicated devices crammed into the vessel, but at the same time wondered why anyone would stake their life on “such flimsy things”…

TIGHT QUARTERS…The Nautilus was a refurbished O-class submarine built in 1916 for the U.S. Navy. Somehow a crew of 20 crammed into the thing. (amphilsoc.org)
The Nautilus was fitted with ice drills that would allow access to the surface of North Pole ice, as well as provide air to the crew and the vessel’s diesel engines. All this equipment was untested and unproven, since at the time submarines were not able to snorkel and had never broken through ice to reach fresh air. Click to enlarge. (Modern Mechanix)

Markey wasn’t alone in thinking such an expedition was preposterous, and from the very beginning it was beset by problems. On the very first day of preparations, March 23, 1931, a crew member fell overboard and drowned. The next day, Lady Suzanne Bennett Wilkins (Sir Hubert’s wife) christened the submarine with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne, which was unavailable due to Prohibition.

More on this in another post, but suffice to say Sir Hubert did not succeed in this endeavor, and perhaps should have listened to the advice of the Icelandic American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson:

DRY DOCK…Christened with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne thanks to Prohibition, the Nautilus expedition, led by Sir Hubert Wilkins (inset), had to overcome many obstacles to reach the North Pole, including untested equipment such as a conning tower (right) designed to drill through ice to allow crew members to reach the surface of polar ice. (amphilsoc.org)

 *  *  *

Bright Star on Broadway

In spring 1931 Dorothy Parker subbed as theatre critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, and was greeted with a remarkably mediocre (or worse) line-up of shows. When Benchley returned to his post, things didn’t get much better until Rhapsody in Black came along with its inspiring star, Ethel Waters.

WELCOME RELIEF…Robert Benchley wrote that singer Ethel Waters had a “chastening effect” on even “the meanest of songs.” (Playbill/Carter Magazine)

 *  *  *

Six – Love

Eighty years ago sportswriter John Tunis declared that the Davis Cup international tennis competition would likely come to an end due to expense and the erosion of amateur play. Well, we know the Davis Cup is still around, and one wonders if Tunis was getting a whiff of sour grapes, since the French had won the cup five years straight, and would win again in 1932.

JEU, SET ET MATCH!…Dubbed Les Quatre Mousquetaires (“The Four Musketeers”), the French team of Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet (top), Jean Borotra (bottom left), and René Lacoste (bottom right) led France to six straight Davis Cup wins, 1927–1932. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Old Gloria

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was only 32 years old in 1931, but she was so deeply associated with the silent era that by the 1930s she seemed positively ancient (a status that she would brilliantly use to her advantage in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard).   Mosher offered this “meh” review of her latest work — only her second completely-sound film — Indiscreet.

WHERE’S THE DOOR?…Ben Lyon seems perplexed by Gloria Swanson’s attentions in this theatre lobby card promoting Indiscreet. At right, Swanson delivers her trademark laser stare. (IMDB)

And we move on to our advertisers, with this ad from Publix Theatres (owned by Paramount) promoting Indiscreet

…Southern Pacific used a theme (illustrated by Don Harold) to promote travel on their trains that wouldn’t fly today…

…I include this ad for the design, which seemed to have a little of everything…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes, however, reverted to a somewhat more homespun image, abandoning the stylish, euro-set illustrations of Carl “Eric” Erickson

…on to our cartoonists, we have this caricature of Max Steuer by Al Frueh, rendered for a two-part profile…Steuer is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the factory owners after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, hmmmm…

Ralph Barton again, with his “Graphic Section”…

Garrett Price weighed the durability of modern decor…

Barbara Shermund looked at gardening challenges in the ‘burbs…

Perry Barlow gave us a glimpse of something perhaps inspired by a trip to Europe…

Richard Decker conjured a boat salesman with a loaded question…

…and we end with the great James Thurber, and a cartoon that might not pass muster today…

Next Time: Flying the Friendly Skies…

 

Killer Queen

The story of Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger isn’t exactly dinner table conversation these days, but in the spring of 1931 his death at the hands of his beauty queen wife had much of America abuzz.

March 21, 1930 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Charlotte Nash, Miss St. Louis of 1923, would have passed into obscurity like so many other beauty contestants if she hadn’t married a wealthy theater owner 30 years her senior, and then divorced and remarried him, and then shot him in the head on the French Riviera.

But first, the reason I am writing about this lurid episode: here’s E.B. White in the March 21, 1931 “Notes and Comment”…

Forty-seven-year-old Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger, wealthy owner of a Philadelphia theater chain, was serving as a judge at the 1923 Miss America competition in Atlantic City when the 17-year-old “Miss St. Louis,” Charlotte Nash, caught his eye and his fancy. By February 1924 they were married…

AIN’T I CUTE?…Seventeen-year-old Charlotte Nash strikes a pose at the 1923 Miss America pageant in Atlantic City; belated 1924 marriage announcement in the Philadelphia Inquirer; announcement in the New York Daily News. (New York Daily News/Philadelphia Inquirer)

…Fred was furious that Charlotte did not win the title in Atlantic City. He vowed to make her a movie star and sent her off to finishing school to work on her manners and elocution…

CRADLE TO GRAVE…Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger sent his young bride to finishing school for “a touch of polishing here and there.” Little did he know that one day she would finish him too…permanently. (findagrave.com/Pittsburgh Press)

…Unfortunately, Fred forgot to tell his young bride that he already had a wife —news that came to light on a trans-Atlantic voyage to Paris, where Fred and Charlotte had planned to honeymoon. Already pregnant with his child, Charlotte nevertheless divorced Fred, but remarried him some months later after the baby was born (and after considerable wooing and groveling by the theater magnate). Fred rejoined Charlotte in France, but the second honeymoon didn’t last long either. On the evening of March 11, 1931, the intensely jealous Fred accused his young wife of trafficking with “gigilos.” After Charlotte denied the charge, Fred seized her by the neck and threatened to choke her to death.

Crime Historian Laura James takes it from there:

“At some point Fred went into the kitchen for more whisky. Charlotte used the opportunity to flee to the bedroom, where she slipped a loaded pistol under her pillow. Fred’s last words to her were, “I will kill you rather than let you have an Italian lover.” Charlotte beat him to it, and as she lay on the bed she retrieved her pistol and fired. The first bullet entered just under Fred Nixon-Nirdlinger’s left eye and lodged at the base of his skull. A second bullet hit him in the chest. Two other shots went wild. Fred crumpled in a pool of blood.”

Charlotte was soon in a French jail, now a bigger star than she had ever been, or ever would be…

FINALLY GETTING SOME NOTICES…Left, detail of a March 18, 1931 New York Times account of the slaying; right, a more lurid take on the story by the July 18, 1931 edition of the Hamilton (Ohio) Evening Journal. Below, another colorful account from the San Francisco Examiner. (newspaper.com/New York Times)

During the subsequent trial, Charlotte’s defense attorneys argued that the shooting was a clear case of self-defense, and the jury agreed, acquitting the former beauty queen in just nine minutes. When she returned to the United States with her two young children, it appeared she would be entitled to a big chunk of Fred’s fortune…

…but in the end the will left her nearly penniless, so she earned what she could by telling her sensational story to the media, including this multi-installment feature she penned for the St. Louis Star and Times:

IT’S A LONG STORY…The 14th and 16th installments of Charlotte Nash’s story of her brush with fame and infamy in the St. Louis Star and Times. (newspaper.com)

Laura James notes that Charlotte might have been better off remaining in France: “The verdict was largely attributed (by the American newspapers at least) to French attitudes toward beautiful women and marriage in general (the jury included eight bachelors). But she returned to St. Louis; learned that her husband’s will left her nearly penniless; and tried to find acting jobs in Hollywood only to be snubbed Lizzie Borden-style, as Hollywood would have none of her. In the end she would declare, ‘Sometimes I’m sorry that I was ever considered beautiful. It brought me more trouble than joy.”‘

But the story doesn’t end there. Charlotte Nash Nixon-Nirdlinger (1905-2009) dropped out of public view, but would live on into the 21st century, dying at age 103 or 104 in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, where she rests today.

RIP CHARLOTTE. (findagrave.com)

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Turkey Trot

Dorothy Parker began to detect a pattern as she continued subbing for her friend Robert Benchley’s theater review column. All of the plays she had reviewed to date were found to be uniformly terrible; she found comfort, however, in fellow critics who also viewed Broadway’s spring lineup as a flock of “little turkeys”…

BIRDS OF A FEATHER…Dorothy Parker found Broadway’s spring lineup to be uniformly terrible, and audiences mostly agreed. Clockwise, from top left, The Admirable Crichton ran for two months and 56 performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre; Grey Shadow closed after 39 performances at the New Yorker Theatre; Napi, directed and lead-acted by the diminutive Ernest Truex (pictured) lasted just 21 shows at the Longacre; The House Beautiful bested them all by staying open for 108 performances at the Apollo. A curious side note: Mary Philips, pictured on the Apollo cover, was Humphrey Bogart’s second wife. The marriage lasted ten years — 1928 to 1938. (Playbill)

Of the plays Parker reviewed, she called The Admirable Crichton “piteously dated;” of Grey Shadow, she wrote that it would be as indelicate for her to discuss the play as it would be to “go into details of my appendectomy;” Parker deemed Napi “as grubby and unpleasant a little comedy as you could want to stay away from;” and she did not find The House Beautiful all that beautiful…”The House Beautiful is, for me, the play lousy.”

Parker ended the column with her usual plea to Benchley:

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Moses Parts the Swamp

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White noted the destruction of trees and swampland in Van Cortlandt Park. In 1931 Robert Moses was president of the Long Island Park Commission but held political sway over so much more. What White was witnessing were preparations for the construction of the Henry Hudson Parkway and Mosholu Parkway that would split Van Cortlandt into six separate pieces. White was right about the disappearing birds: the last remaining freshwater marsh in the state, Tibbetts Brook, was dredged to accommodate construction.

HE PAVED PARADISE…Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York attends a Jones Beach luncheon on July 26, 1931, as a guest of Robert Moses (far left), who was president of the Long Island Park Commission. (AP Photo)
A PARK DIVIDED…The Mosholu Parkway cuts a wide swath through Van Cortlandt Park, 1936. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Those Daring Young Men

Ever since Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in 1927, Americans were captivated by the derring-do of pilots who competed for various “firsts.” In the case of Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr., the goal was to to fly around the world and break the record of 20 days and 4 hours set by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1929. In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey noted the many weeks of preparation by the two pilots…

A BIT OF FUN…July 1931 newspaper illustration of Clyde Pangborn, left, and Hugh Herndon Jr., with a map of the route they followed on their attempt to set a new round-the-world flight record. (AP)

Markey noted that the two pilots claimed they were setting out on their dangerous mission “for the fun of it”…

While Pangborn and Herndon were still making flight plans at their Hotel Roosevelt headquarters, Wiley Post and Harold Gatty took to the air and claimed the record of 8 days and 15 hours. Pangborn and Herndon decided to make a go of it anyway, leaving New York on July 28, 1931, in their red Bellanca named the Miss Veedol, but poor weather in Siberia caused them to abandon their quest.

There was, however, a $25,000 prize being offered by the Tokyo newspaper Asahi Shimbun to the first pilots to cross the Pacific non-stop, so Pangborn and Herndon regrouped and successfully flew the Miss Veedol across the Pacific Ocean — in 41 hours and 13 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a smooth flight; three hours after takeoff the device used to jettison the landing gear failed, prompting Pangborn to climb out onto the wing barefoot at 14,000 feet to remove the landing gear props. After several other near-mishaps — including nearly smashing into a mountain — the duo completed their historic flight with a controlled crash landing near Wenatchee, Washington.

NO WHEELS, NO PROBLEM…More than 41 hours after departing Japan, Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr. performed a controlled crash landing near Wenatchee, Washington, completing the first-ever nonstop flight across the Pacific Ocean. (Wired.com)
STILL IN ONE PIECE…Hugh Herndon Jr., left, and Clyde Pangborn after crash-landing at Wenatchee, Wash., following their 1931 flight across the Pacific from Misawa, Japan. (Spirit of Wenatchee).

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From Our Advertisers

Herndon and Pangborn made plans for their round-the-world flight while staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown…I’ve stayed there myself and enjoyed its nubby charms…as for the underground passageway to the Grand Central, it’s still there, but no longer open to the public…

…the makers of Kleenex originally marketed their tissues for makeup removal…by the 1930s, however, they saw a much bigger opportunity…

…if the Roosevelt Hotel wasn’t posh enough for you, the new Waldorf-Astoria might have been your cup of tea…

…and if you could stay at the Waldorf, you might be able to afford a Packard, which in the 1930s was a near-rival to Rolls Royce…

…I toss this one in from Goodyear because it is probably the only time an image of the Taj Mahal was used to sell tires…

…we have another lovely Carl “Eric” Erickson illustration for Camel…

…and at first glance I thought this was another two-page ad for Chesterfield cigarettes, but it appears the candy manufacturers also wanted to tie their products to exciting lifestyles…in this case, you were urged to eat candy for some quick energy…here it is implied that Schrafft’s candy will give you the energy you need for sailboating and…er…other activities…

…for comparison, Chesterfield ad from 1930…

…on to our cartoons…Otto Soglow continued the adventures of the Little King…

Perry Barlow showed us that war is hell…

…some ringside niceties courtesy E. McNerney

Mary Petty reminded us that posh folks weren’t exactly known for their intellect…

Alan Dunn examined the challenges of buying an older house…

Helen Hokinson gave us a politically precocious young lad…

…and two glimpses into high society by Barbara Shermund

…including their scintillating conversations about such things as ice makers…

Next Time: Front Page News…

 

Rise of the Gangster Film

During the early years of the Depression and before censorship guidelines were imposed by the Hays Code, Hollywood cranked out a slew of “Pre-Code” films filled with sex and violence, including 1931’s Little Caesar, the first “talkie” gangster film that defined the genre for decades to come.

Jan. 17, 1931 cover by Peter Arno.

Marble Halls

We close out the boiling August of 1930 with Wolcott Gibbs and his fanciful musings regarding the future offices of the New Yorker, inspired by his recent visit to the glitzy new lobby of the New York Daily News Building.

August 30, 1930 cover by Julian De Miskey.

I include a brief excerpt of Gibb’s tongue-in-cheek fantasy of the future, which inadvertently foresees the New Yorker’s current offices (see contrast of old and new above) in the gleaming glass tower now known as One World Trade Center:

THAT WAS THEN…The New Yorker’s first offices were located at 25 West 45th Street, a 16-story building erected in 1913 (it still stands). It’s almost impossible to find images of the New Yorker’s early office spaces, but you can probably get some idea from these photos of another tenant of the building, the  Y.M.C.A. Dental School. (Museum of the City of New York/New York Public Library)
THIS IS NOW…Almost in fulfillment of Wolcott Gibbs’ fantasy, the New Yorker today occupies offices in the Condé Nast section (images above) of the 104-story, 1,776 foot One World Trade Center (floors 20 to 44). When the New Yorker moved onto the building’s 38th floor in early 2015 (one floor above Wired), it marked the first time the magazine was located outside of a small area in Midtown. (New York Magazine/interiordesign.net)

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His Bit of Earth

“The Talk of the Town” noted an increasingly rare sight along Fifth Avenue, a private garden created by Thomas Fortune Ryan that in 1930 was occupied by his son Clendenin J Ryan:

DUST TO DUST…Thomas Fortune Ryan demolished the Charles T. Yerkes mansion and its art galleries (before and after photos, top, and image of a gallery, bottom right) to make way for his private flower garden, which is visible in the bottom left hand corner of the image at top right. An apartment building erected in 1937 (bottom left) occupies the site today. (Museum of the City of New York/Alice Lum)

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From Our Advertisers

Backgammon became all the rage in the 1930, so much so that one Grosvenor Nicholas, “a famous authority on backgammon,” commanded a fill-page ad from Saks…

…for reference, the New Yorker made note of Nicholas’s visit in the Sept. 6 “Talk of the Town”…

FUN IN THE SUN…Joan Crawford playing backgammon with her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in 1931. (Pinterest)

…celebrity endorsements continued to grow in importance in the 1930s, here the famed Australian-born British actress Judith Anderson (1897-1992) marvels at the products manufactured by Angelus…

…Anderson would later be made a “Dame,” and would enjoy a long career and a long life, even appearing in 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock as the Vulcan High Priestess T’Lar…

VERSATILE…At left, Dame Judith Anderson in 1930. At right, Anderson on the set of 1984’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, with actor Leonard Nimoy. (Tumblr)

…this ad for Buick shows a rich gent dismissing his chauffeur, something he would probably have to do permanently as the Depression continued to ruin fortunes…

…and perhaps a lost fortune could lead to one being “difficult,” and in that case Dyers & Dyers could sooth the hurt with squab from a can…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Constantin Alajalov illustrating a scene at the Battery…

Ralph Barton continued his interpretations of a new decade…

…some unfortunate racist humor from Al Frueh

…an indelicate moment at the beach, courtesy Garrett Price

Perry Barlow looked at the challenges of city life…

…and Alan Dunn found a man with a case of the moderns…

Next Time: Animal Crackers…