Unfit to Print

The journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the “Reporter at Large” column for the early New Yorker, and for the April 30, 1927 issue took aim at the shoddy coverage of the Ruth Snyder murder trial at the Long Island City Courthouse.

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April 30, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Hecht was appalled by the media’s use of celebrity “experts” to cover the trial, which only served to sensationalize and trivialize the proceedings:

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Ben Hecht (Alamy)

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The Ruth Snyder trial dominated headlines in 1927. A housewife from Queens, Snyder began an affair in 1925 with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. After she persuaded her husband, Albert Snyder, to purchase life insurance, she enlisted Gray’s help to murder her husband. On March 20, 1927 the couple garrotted Albert Snyder (after bludgeoning him with a sash weight) and then staged the murder scene to look like a burglary.

The trial was covered by such figures as former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, movie director D. W. Griffith, author Damon Runyon, popular philosopher Will Durant, and James M. Cain, a crime reporter who went on to write Double Indemnity, which was later made into a major Hollywood movie. Hecht (who would go on to co-write a hugely successful play about newspaper reporters, The Front Page) would have none of this celebrity circus. Some excerpts:

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Ruth Snyder would not be acquitted (or live to write reviews), but instead would go to Sing Sing’s electric chair on Jan. 12, 1928. The 32-year-old Snyder would go to the chair first, followed shortly thereafter by her former lover and accomplice, 35-year-old Henry Judd Gray. The pair had sealed each other’s fate: During the trial, Snyder and Gray had turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert Snyder.

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BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Criminal Encyclopedia/NY Daily News)
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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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NATIONAL SENSATION…The cover of Jan. 13, 1928, issue of the New York Daily News. Although photographs of the execution were not allowed, photographer Tom Howard took this now-famous photo of Snyder at the moment of her execution with the aid of a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. (newseum.org)

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On to a lighter topic…The Sherry-Netherland Hotel has graced the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street since 1927, and when it was built it was the tallest apartment-hotel in New York City.

The building was nearing completion when around 8 pm on April 12, 1927, fire broke out on wood plank scaffolding surrounding the top floors. Firefighters responded only to find they lacked water pressure to fight the blaze.

According to the New York Times (“The Night a Hotel Turned Into a Torch,” Nov. 15, 2012), the fire was watched by hundreds of thousands, and “the windows of the Plaza Hotel across the street were ‘black with people’; every front room was engaged, either by news organizations or for spontaneous parties to watch the fire.”

Planks tumbled to the street for hours, and The Times said one “sailed in a crazy parabola” and crashed against the Savoy-Plaza, also nearly finished; occasionally minor collapses of the scaffolding turned the picturesque top into a “lofty Roman candle.” The crowds on the street could feel the heat on their faces, and the roar and crackle of the fire could be heard for blocks around. The fire burned itself out around midnight.

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the fire, mentioning it only in passing in this “Talk of the Town” item:

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HOT TIME IN THE CITY…In 1927 the Sherry-Netherland caught on fire, creating what The New York Times called “the best show of the season.” The newspaper ran this photo (left), retouching it for contrast (NYT). At right, the hotel as it appears today (Wikipedia)

An interesting side note…at the time of the Sherry-Netherland’s construction, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion was being demolished. Carved limestone panels from the mansion’s porte-cochere as well as ornamental frieze roundels were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland’s lobby.

Hollywood movies continued to disappoint New Yorker critics, including Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings.

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screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-12-59-22-pmFinally, a couple of advertisements from the April 30 issue. It was spring, and time to hit the links…

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…and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno plugged his new book featuring the Whoops Sisters:

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Next time: Those Restless Natives…

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The Dinosaurs of Upper West Side

New York’s American Museum of National History unveiled its new Hall of Dinosaurs, and it was so impressive that even the New Yorker set aside its usual blasé tone toward popular attractions…

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April 2, 1927 cover by Toyo San.

…and found its “Talk of the Town” editors to be quite taken with “sacred bones:”dinosaurs

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NEW DIGS…Children studying a Brontosaurus skeleton in the American Museum of National History’s Hall of Dinosaurs, 1927. (AMNH Research Library)

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Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Hall of Dinosaurs, 1927. (AMNH Research Library)

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The April 2, 1927 issue also found New Yorkers to be agog over “French-style” telephones:
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FRANCOPHONE…Trendy New Yorkers were switching from their old reliable candlestick telephones (left) to “French-style” phones (center) that were common throughout Europe. Western Electric answered their call with a sleek American version in 1928, right.

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The April 9, 1927 issue featured the second of Peter Arno’s 99 covers for the New Yorker. His first cover appeared eighteen issues earlier (Nov. 22, 1926) and featured the same gardener, but this time he was inspecting a newly budded leaf rather than the last one to fall:

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Note the difference in style between the two covers–the April 9 cover is rendered with more detail, depth and texture. These would be Arno’s only covers with rather sedate subjects. Subsequent covers would have more action and humor, such as this one from 1954, one of my favorites:

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And now for a note about Paul Whiteman. One cannot write about the Jazz Age without mentioning the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. It was Whiteman who in 1924 commissioned George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered with Whiteman’s orchestra (and with George Gershwin himself at the piano).

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This ad in the Feb. 26, 1927 New Yorker announced the much-anticipated return of Whiteman and his orchestra. The caricature of Whiteman was his trademark.

Even Lois Long, who seemed to be growing bored with New York nightlife, found reason to celebrate Whiteman in this column that appeared alongside the ad:

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Whiteman had 28 number one records during the 1920s and dominated sheet music sales. He provided music for six Broadway shows and produced more than 600 recordings. Dubbed “King of Jazz” his style was actually a blending of jazz and symphonic music.

The folks at Victor Talking Machines played on Whiteman’s fame with this advertisement for their latest “Orthophonic” Victrola. Although it was the first consumer phonograph designed specifically to play “electrically” recorded discs and was recognized as a major step forward in sound reproduction, the claim that the machine would reproduce sounds “exactly as you would hear them at the smart supper clubs” seemed a little far-fetched.

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And finally, in celebration of spring, Constantin Alajalov illustrated an April day in Central Park, which was featured in a two-page spread in “Talk of the Town.”

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(click to enlarge)

Next Time: The Enchanting Modernist…

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Upstairs, Downstairs

As the New Yorker was a magazine of the city’s new money smart set, it poked fun at their faddish tastes and patronizing attitudes while at the same time feeding their Anglophilia and WASPish sense of superiority.

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January 22, 1927 cover by Andre De Schaub.

The magazine’s pages were filled with ads for English-style clothes, French perfumes and expensive cars. And in the Jan. 22 issue there were many ads for the motorboats that had displaced the automobile show at Grand Central Palace:

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It is important to note that this ad is an appeal to new money; old money would have found this motorized vessel quite vulgar.

As it were, the new money needed some guidance if they hoped to live a lifestyle of ease and sophistication. And thus the issue’s “On and Off the Avenue” column, guest-written by Gretta Palmer (Lois Long took the week off), offered advice on how to hire and clothe the help:

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Perhaps you wanted a proper English butler. Lida Seely had your man:

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Or a Scotch maid, or choose from a selection of “any color or race”…

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In case you found that last sentence a bit callous, Gretta reassured:

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The issue also featured a cartoon by Rea Irvin (displayed full-page, sideways in the original magazine) that would be offensive to 21st century sensibilities. The cartoon depicted the “lower orders” aping the lifestyle of the upper classes. Note that of all the racial and ethnic types shown here–“Orientals,” Eastern Europeans and the Irish–only blacks remain in the servant class.

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As I noted in a previous post, “Race Matters,” the New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in engaging in casual bigotry common in those days, including treating blacks as racial “others.” There is, perhaps, a subtle jab here by Irvin at the pretensions of the uppers, but he’s not around anymore to clarify this.

The issue also featured the first of a series of articles (“Profiles”) on the 87-year-old John D. Rockefeller. A brief excerpt, with illustration by Cyrus Baldridge:

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Rockefeller

The writer’s prediction wasn’t too far off: John D. Rockefeller would live another ten years, and die at age 97 in 1937. His grandson, David Rockefeller, apparently inherited both his money and his genes: he recently celebrated his 101st birthday.

Finally, a cartoon by Peter Arno, famed for his drawings of women, usually scantily clad. Here we see an early example in one of his “Whoops Sisters” panels:

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By comparison, here is a cartoon by Arno 33 years later, from the September 10, 1960 issue of the New Yorker:

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Caption: “Makes you kind of proud to be an American, doesn’t it?”

Next Time: All That Jazz…

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That Sad Young Man

The “sad young man” in question was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was profiled by John Chapin Mosher in the April 17, 1926 issue of The New Yorker.

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April 17, 1926 cover by Clayton Knight.

Mosher wrote that Scott believed he was “getting on in years,” even though he was only 29 years old and had recently published The Great Gatsby (which had received a brief, lukewarm review from The New Yorker in 1925). Mosher observed that the novelist and his wife, Zelda, famous on two continents and with money pouring in from the publication of This Side of Paradise, nevertheless complained of being broke:

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It was noted however that the couple had little financial sense:

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Mosher found Fitzgerald to be a grave, hardworking man, and seemed to sense the melancholy that would lead to madness (in Zelda’s case), alcoholism and an early grave (Fitzgerald would be dead in 14 years).

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Illustration of Fitzgerald by Victor De Pauw for the April 17 “Profile.”

In this issue we were also introduced to Peter Arno’s “Whoops Sisters,” although they are not yet identified here by that title:

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 9.22.43 AMAccording to New Yorker cartoonist Michael Maslin, “in 1925, The New Yorker published nine Arno drawings. In 1926, it ran seventy-two. The enormous jump was due to the wild success of two cartoon sisters Arno created: Pansy Smiff and Mrs. Abagail Flusser, otherwise known as The Whoops Sisters. The Sisters were not sweet little old ladies — they were naughty boisterous grinning “wink wink, nudge nudge” sweet little old ladies, their language laced with double entendres.”

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April 24, 1926 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

In the April 24, 1926 issue, the dyspeptic film critic Theodore Shane took aim at Cecil B. DeMille’ The Volga Boatman:

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VOLGA HOKUM…Elinor Fair and Victor Varconi in The Volga Boatman. (Virtual History)

Also in this issue, Al Frueh’s interpretation of New York’s social strata via the city’s Madison Avenue train stops:

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Near the theatre section, this illustration of famed Spanish singer and actress Raquel Meller, as rendered by Miguel Covarrubias:

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And a photo of Meller from the 1920s that looks like it could have been taken yesterday:

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An international star in the 1920s and 1930s, Meller appeared in several films and sang the original version of the well known song La Violetera.

Next Time: The Circus Comes to Town…

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Enter Peter Arno

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Dec. 5, 1925 cover by Max Ree.

In the fall of 1925, Peter Arno’s illustrations began to pop up in the pages of The New Yorker magazine.

Arno’s early illustrations were surprisingly understated, given that he would go on to become one of the magazine’s best known cartoonists, contributing many memorable illustrations and cartoons–and 99 covers–to the magazine from 1925 until 1968, the year of his death.

Recently described by longtime New Yorker writer Roger Angell as “the magazine’s first genius,” in 1927 Arno would marry fellow New Yorker contributor Lois Long (“Tables for Two” and “On and Off the Avenue”).

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Peter Arno

In his memoir Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill wrote that editor Harold Ross frowned on office romances, but “it was perhaps inevitable that Arno and Miss Long should have fallen in love.”

To keep his party-loving contributors close to the workplace, Ross opened a staff speakeasy in the basement of a near-by property. Long later relayed this story to writer Harrison Kinney about Ross’s ill-fated experiment:

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Lois Long

“(Ralph) Ingersoll came in one morning and found Arno and me stretched out on the sofa nude and Ross closed the place down…Arno and I may have been married to one another then; I can’t remember. Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to.”

The marriage would last only three years (and produce a daughter…more on that in a later post), but they would collectively give more than eight decades of their lives to the magazine.

Examples of Arno’s early contributions:

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August 1925
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Dec. 5, 1925

And his later work…a cartoon from 1960:Peter-Arno-10-Sept-1960-beauty-contestIn other news, “The Talk of the Town” editors also joined the throng of gapers taking one last look at the Vanderbilt mansion:

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And they rhapsodized about the new Madison Square Garden, which was nearing completion at Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets:

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Postcard image of New York City’s Madison Square Garden No. 3, which remained in use until 1968. (Wikipedia)

“Profiles” featured the “Apostle of Perfection,” Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, famed for his performances of Mahler and Strauss. “The Current Press” noted the first-ever coverage of a professional football game by a New York newspaper (NY Times):

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An excerpt from the lengthy Times article referenced by The New Yorker:

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THE GALLOPING GHOST…Red Grange with the Chicago Bears in 1925. (Library of Congress)

In “On and Off the Avenue,” Lois Long wrote about the wonders of children’s toys on display for the Christmas season:

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It is worth noting that the “Schwartz” store to which she referred (known to most of us as FAO Schwartz) will be closing its current Fifth Avenue store at the end of 2016. The name will live on (sadly) in online retailing as a unit of Toy’s R Us.

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This is the F.A.O. Schwarz store that would have been familiar to Lois Long. (6sqft.com)

And in her “Tables for Two” column, Long referred to the previous issue’s blockbuster article penned by the reluctant debutant, Ellie Mackay, which perhaps made Long’s nighttime forays a bit less novel:

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The Dec. 5 issue also carried a response to Mackay’s article, written by a young Yale alumnus named William Adee. A couple of brief excerpts:

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Later in his lengthy rebuttal, Adee offers this (exasperated) observation:

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In “Motion Pictures,” Theodore Shane found little to recommend: Cecille B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday was “hokum,” The Masked Bride tame, and the new Tom Mix picture, The Best Bad Man, was in need of a plot.

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HO HUM…Basil Rathbone and Mae Murray in The Masked Bride. The film is now lost. (doctormacro.com)

Next Time: Yuletide Approaches…

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