Back to Broadway

From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.

April 28, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

INSEPARABLE…The Lunts in the 1920s, as photographed by Nickolas Muray. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to them with a first- class stamp. (Conde Nast/USPS)

Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:

OLD FRIENDS…Noel Coward (left) Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Coward’s 1932 play Design For Living. A close friend of Lunt and Fontanne, Coward enjoys a relaxing moment (right) at the couple’s “Ten Chimneys” estate in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin. (Getty/tenchimneys.org)
IT REALLY HAS TEN CHIMNEYS…At left, the main house at Lunt and Fontanne’s “Ten Chimneys.” At right, the estate’s ‘Falu-Red’ Cottage. The estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. (tenchimneys.org)

Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.

According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.

And Then There Were Hearst & Davies

Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.

Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy,  even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:

SHOWING HER FUN SIDE…Left, publicity photo of Marion Davies, late 1920s. At right, Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) vies for the attentions of her mother, Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) and sister Grace Harrington (Jane Winton) in King Vidor’s 1928 hit comedy The Patsy. The film was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst along with Davies and Vidor.(cinemaartscentre.org)

A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”

One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.

PSSST…LIGHTEN UP, WILL YA?…Warner Baxter and Pola Negri in Three Sinners (1928). (Paramount)

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Another Bad Girl

Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.

On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.

BAD GIRL, GOOD SALES…Clockwise, from upper left: a screenshot of Delmar from the trailer for 1934’s Sadie McKee, a film starring Joan Crawford based on Delmar’s 1933 short story “Pretty Sadie McKee”; an ad for Bad Girl in the April 28, 1928 New Yorker; original jacket cover for Bad Girl; a 1930 advertisement for the film Dance Hall, based on a 1929 Delmar short story. (Wikipedia/New Yorker/Amazon/immortalephemera.com)

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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: After Hours…

The Movies Take Wing

The First Academy Award for Best Picture went to Wings, a romantic action-war picture directed by William Wellman and featuring Paramount’s biggest star at the time, the “It Girl” Clara Bow and the young Gary Cooper in a role that would launch his Hollywood career.

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August 20, 1927 cover by Helen E. Hokinson.

The film was shot on location at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, on a budget of $2 million (about $27 million today). About 300 pilots were involved in filming  realistic (and dangerous) air-combat sequences using both mounted and hand-held cameras.

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LOFTY AMBITIONS…Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Clara Bow in Wings, 1927. (BBC)

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NO CGI HERE…Director William Wellman, during production of Wings. (1927)
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WHERE DID HE BUY HIS INSURANCE?…Stunt pilot Dick Grace specialized in crashing planes for films, and was one of the few stunt pilots who died of old age. (ladailymirror)

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We leave the skies for the trenches in another World War I film–Barbed Wire–that was entertaining New Yorkers in 1927…

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LOOKS MORE INTERESTING OUT THERE…Pola Negri watches the Germans in Barbed Wire, 1927 (Wikipedia)

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The Duncan Sisters were back, this time on the silver screen in an adaptation of their Broadway hit play, Topsy and Eva. Yes, one of the sisters performed in blackface, which was acceptable to white audiences of the time (including New Yorker critics). You can read more about this duo in my recent blog entry, Fifteen Minutes is Quite Enough.

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Advertisement for the film, Topsy and Eva, 1927. (nilsasther.blogspot.com)

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Meanwhile, Paris correspondent Janet Flanner was noting some modern influences in the city thanks to the influence of the German Bauhaus…

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Rue Mallet Stevens was designed by Paris-based architect, designer and production designer Robert Mallet-Stevens, who founded the Union of Modern Artists (UAM) in 1929. (theredlist.com).

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From the “they couldn’t see it coming” department, this item in “Talk of the Town” caught my eye. We have since learned that carbon emissions are indeed taking a toll on human life…

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…and a couple of cartoons from this issue, this one courtesy of Barbara Shermund…

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…and this from an unidentified cartoonist (Dussey?) that gives us a glimpse of the world to come thanks to merger of technology and tedious, proud parents…

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And to end on a “Wings” theme, the following week’s issue…

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August 27, 1927 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

…offered this advertisment from L. Bamberger & Co. that gave us a tongue-in-cheek glance at the future of aviation…

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Next Time: The Wages of Beauty…

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Those Jaunty Jalopies

The January 8, 1927 issue of the New Yorker was all over the 27th Annual Motor Show at the Grand Central Palace, both in its lengthy review of the show and the many automobile ads throughout its pages.

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January 8, 1927 (Issue # 99) cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Auto manufacturers discovered early on that cars didn’t need to advance technologically from year to year as long as there were superficial changes–trimmings and such–to dazzle the consumer:

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Artist Helen Hokinson added this touch to the issue devoted to the auto show.
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A 1927 Gardner Model 90 Roadster on display at the 27th Annual New York Motor Show at Grand Central Palace. (gardnermotorcars.com)

Advertisements in the New Yorker ranged from snobbish appeals to Francophiles…

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 3.32.48 PM…to those who might be concerned about safety. Although cars weren’t very fast, they were fast enough to kill, and their plentiful numbers often overwhelmed a city with rudimentary traffic control.

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In his book, One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson writes that New York in 1927 was the most congested city on earth. It contained more cars than the whole country of Germany, while at the same 50,000 horses (and wagons) still clogged the streets. More than a thousand people died in traffic accidents in the city in 1927, four times the number today.

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THE DEATH-O-METER … was a 20-foot sign installed near Grand Army Plaza in 1927. It tallied traffic accidents and fatalities in the borough and reminded motorists to slow down at the traffic circle. (Ephemeral New York)

Traffic control was still in its infancy in the 1920s. Seven ornate bronze towers, 23 feet high, were placed at intersections along Fifth Avenue from 14th to 57th Streets starting in 1922. By 1927 smaller, simpler lights were mounted on street corners and the system of green, yellow and red was generally adopted.

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Bronze traffic signal tower designed by Joseph H. Freedlander at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, 1922. (New York Times)

Keeping with the motorcar theme, the issue also featured a profile (written by Lurton Blassingame) of Walter P. Chrysler, founder of the new car company that bore his name (Chrysler founded his company in June 1925 after acquiring and reorganizing the old Maxwell Motor Company). In just three years a famous New York City landmark bearing his name would pierce the skyline.

I recently noted that the fall 1926 editions of the New Yorker barely mentioned baseball, even though the Yankees made it to the World Series that year. No doubt the Black Sox scandal of 1919 still lingered in the minds of many fans. Morris Markey’s “Reporter at Large” column in the Jan. 8, 1927 issue suggested that the game was still dishonest, thanks in part to its collusion with the newspapers:

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Baseball might have been down and out, but actress Pola Negri still maintained her place in the spotlight with her latest film, Hotel Imperial.

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Actress Pola Negri consults on a script with director Mauritz Stiller (left) on the set of Hotel Imperial. (MOMA)

Next Time: Bad Hootch

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Battleship Potemkin

American cinema did little to excite the writers or critics of The New Yorker, who considered European films, and particularly German ones, to be far superior to the glitzy and sentimental fare produced in Hollywood.

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Sept. 11, 1926 cover by Eugene Gise.

So when it was announced that Russian/Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein would be releasing Battleship Potemkin in New York City, the magazine’s editors in “The Talk of the Town” expressed both anticipation for the masterpiece as well as worries that American censors would slice the film to bits or even ban it outright.

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The magazine’s film critic “OC” also expressed his concerns regarding censors:

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IT’S NOT WHAT’S FOR DINNER…Sailors examine maggot-infested meat in the film Battleship Potemkin. (themoviesnob)

The film was based on an historical event–a mutiny on the battleship Potemkin that occurred after the crew was served rotten meat for dinner. The sailors rebelled, seized the ship, and then attempted to ignite a revolution in their home port of Odessa, which in turn led to a massacre of citizens by Cossack soldiers on the city’s famed Potemkin Stairs.

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Mutineers revel in a scene from Battleship Potemkin. (Wall Street Journal)
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A still from a classic scene in Battleship Potemkin that depicts Odessa citizens being massacred by Cossacks on the city’s famous Potemkin Stairs. The image of the unattended baby carriage tumbling down the staircase has been re-created in many films, including Brian De Palma’s 1987 The Untouchables. (Film 4)

The film would ultimately be released in December of 1926. Perhaps more on that in a later post.

The Sept. 11, 1926 issue also noted the passing of famed silent film star Rudolph Valentino, who died at age 31 of peritonitis and other complications. The “Talk” editors suggested that if anything, it was good for newspaper sales:

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FUN AT THE FUNERAL…Valentino’s first funeral in New York (the second was in Beverly Hills) drew a huge crowd of in what was described as a “carnival setting”. More than 100,000 fans filed past his open casket at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home. Windows were smashed as fans tried to get in and an all-day riot erupted on August 24. Over 100 mounted officers and NYPD’s Police Reserve were deployed to restore order. A phalanx of officers would line the streets for the remainder of the viewing. Some media reports claimed the body on display was a wax dummy, and not “The Sheik” himself. (Wikipedia)
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SWEETHEARTS? Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri met in early 1926 at a costume party thrown by Marion Davies. Negri claimed she was engaged to be married to the actor at the time of his death.
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EVER THE DIVA…Pola Negri’s grief-stricken performance at Valentino’s New York funeral was considered by most to be over-the-top, even for a famous diva. Supported by a secretary and press agent (photo above), Pola declared to reporters that she and Valentino were secretly engaged to be married. She posed in dramatic fashion for the reporters and then threw herself, weeping and fainting, on Valentino’s open casket. (flickchick1953)

On the lighter side, The New Yorker men’s fashion columnist “Bowler” (I have not been able to identify the person behind this pseudonym) offered this observation of a new style suggested by Harpo Marx:

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Vaudeville star Harpo Marx in 1926. The first Marx Brothers movie was still three years away. (Wikipedia)

And to close, a couple of advertisements from the Sept. 11 issue…the first is a McCreery & Company ad illustrated by Gluyas Williams. These would become a series, featuring a milquetoast husband facing the daunting task of shopping for his wife, among other challenges…

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…and this ad from Park Central Motors, depicting a child who’s all too aware of her standing in society…

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Next Time: On the Airwaves…

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They Call It Burlesque

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August 22, 1925 cover by A.E. Wilson

The critic Gilbert W. Gabriel was more than a bit appalled by the spectacle at the old Olympic Theatre, where a tired and “degenerated” cast of burlesque performers took turns shaking their ancient haunches in the direction of the former Julliard student.

Gilbert’s article in the August 22, 1925 New Yorker, “They Call It Burlesque,” described the performance at the Olympic on East Fourteenth Street as “on its last legs.” The once “honest animalistic, gorgeously orgiastic burlesque show of ten or twenty years ago” had “degenerated in decency,” he wrote.

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Illustration in The New Yorker of the Olympic Burlesque by Reginald Marsh.

As the performers wiggled up and down the runways, Gilbert noted:

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The audience was an equally sad lot:

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There is some relief expressed when two comedians appeared, but they offer an unimaginative routine:

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And then back to the dancers:

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And still more…

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Happier news over in “The Talk of the Town,” where jazz was getting some respect: “Jazz, successor to the outcast ragtime, each day is becoming acceptable. It is the young brother of the musical family, irresponsible and at time highly irritating, but, nevertheless, acknowledged.”

It was reported that even famed violinist Jascha Heifetz “dabbled” in jazz as an amusement, and writers of jazz were “no longer those products of East Side dives,” but rather included the likes of Buddy de Sylva, lyrist to Al Jolson, and George Gershwin, “high priest of jazz,” who was besieged by symphony conductors for his “Symphony in Blue” (better known today as Rhapsody In Blue).

“Talk” continued its lament of the changing face of Fifth Avenue:

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And the Waldorf Astoria was being remodeled in order to add shops on the ground floor along with “125 bathrooms,” giving the famed hotel “a bath for almost every room.” In just four years the old Waldorf would be torn down and replaced by the Empire State Building.

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The old Waldorf Astoria was getting an upgrade, but it would fall to a wrecking ball in only four years. (nycago.org)

“Talk” also noted the planting of Ginkgo trees in the city:

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Although prized today for their beauty and hardiness, not all New Yorkers are in love with the strong odor of its fruit. In the June 30, 2008 issue of The New Yorker, Lauren Collins examined the activities of the “Anti-Ginkgo Tolerance Group” in her article “Smelly Trees.”

“Talk” also offered a brief glimpse into the latest adventures of Pola Negri, noting in its “This Week” section that the actress had paid “$57,000 customs dues in seized jewels…”

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Pola liked nice things (Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair, 1925)

In other items, artist Helen Hokinson provided illustrations for an article on the horse races at Saratoga…

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…John Tunis examined the life of tennis star Elizabeth “Bunny” Ryan in “Profiles” … and E.B. White and Alice Duer Miller offered their thoughts on why they liked New York:

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“Moving Pictures” featured a lengthy review of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. Theodore Shane (“T.S.”) wrote that the film’s opening night at the Strand attracted such celebrities as Will Rogers and Constance Bennett.

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Cheer Up Charlie…Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925) (United Artists)

Shane observed that this “dramatic comedy” was a “serviceable picture,” but perhaps Chaplin was getting “too metaphysical about his pathos” and could have used some old-fashioned pie-in-the-face slapstick.

As an example, in a scene in a typical Klondike town, Shane wrote that “one might be given to expect wonders of Gold Rush burlesque with the old Chaplin at the receiving end of the Klondike equivalent of a custard. But one is doomed to disappointment, for Chaplin has seen fit to turn on his onion juices in a Pierrot’s endeavor to draw your tears…We cannot help but recall with a tinge of sadness, the old days when custard was young.”

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(Wikipedia)

Shane went on to give short but favorable reviews to Rex Reach’s Winds of Chance (at the Piccadilly Theatre), the film’s chief props consisting of “string ties, wooden saloons, ½ dozen cold-blooded murders and the tenderfoot who conquers everything…Shane also noted that the “spiritual features” of Tom Mix in The Lucky Horseshoe (at the Rialto) lent themselves delightfully to “a lovely and sensitive drama of moyen age and modern machinations in the Fairbanks style.”

In “Books,” Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) suggested readers take a look at Carl Van Vechten’s Firecrackers as a good introduction to the writer’s unique style, while J.D. Bereford’s The Monkey Puzzle was deemed only “partly good” but worth reading.

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Lois “Lipstick” Long and Herman J. Mankiewicz (PBS/Wikipedia)

In her regular nightlife review (“When Nights Are Young”), Lois Long (“Lipstick”) playfully sparred with her New Yorker colleague, theater critic Herman J. Mankiewicz:

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Long was referencing this Mankiewicz review in a previous issue (Aug. 8):

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And it all started when Long offered this observation in her July 25 “When Nights Bold” column:

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I hope you are fully sated. As a palate cleanser, I offer yet another droll observation of the world of old money by Gardner Rea:

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Next time: The waning summer season…

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The “Countess” Pola Negri

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May 16, 1925 cover by A.E. Wilson

The antics of Polish actress Pola Negri were once again in The New Yorker’s spotlight in the May 16, 1925 issue. In the early issues of magazine, Negri was among the most watched celebrities including Gloria Swanson and Charlie Chaplin.

Negri’s latest activities were recounted in a “Talk of the Town” segment that began with an account of the English tenor John Coates. Upon his arrival in the U.S., it was reported that Coates “frankly noted upon his Customs’ declaration possession of two quarts of truly excellent Scotch; quite a different procedure from that followed by Pola Negri who has found it necessary, since inspectors discovered some alcoholic beverages among her baggage to (1) fail to remember their presence, (2) attribute ownership to her maid, and (3) recall that there were mild wines for medicinal use only.”

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(San Francisco Sentinel, left; rag piano.com, right)

“Talk” continued with a report on Negri’s recent behavior in Paris, where “Madame, the Countess” created a traffic jam when she demanded that her driver stop to serve her “a golden drink in a beautiful goblet,” and later at the Ritz-Carlton “she engaged for herself an entire floor.” When informed that singer/actress Nora Bayes “and her latest husband” already occupied two rooms on the floor, Negri replied that they would understand that “she could not possibly live in less than an entire floor.” Then Negri herself knocked on Bayes’ door and asked the couple to move off the floor. It was not reported if they complied, but the magazine did note that “after the clinch there was a grand and most friendly party that evening.”

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Article from Motion Picture magazine, April 1925 (page scan)

“Talk” also commented on “The Craze for Royalty” with the observation that “No social set feels satisfied with its activities these democratic days unless it is entertaining, has entertained, or is planning to entertain royalty. There were rumors that “Even that secluded section of our native aristocracy which is descended wholly from Colonial governors, and which hitherto has treated mere kings and princes with formal politeness proper for acknowledging the presence of inferiors, has succumbed to the craze” with a “discreet inquiry as to whether Wilhelmina, Queen of the Netherlands, would accept an invitation to visit New York in 1926.”

The royal visit was sought in conjunction with a planned celebration by the descendants of the original “New Netherlanders” of that “famous real estate deal three hundred years ago, when Manhattan Island was purchased from the Indians for some rum and a few trinkets.”

“Talk” noted previous visits by royalty, such as the “kidnapping” of the King and Queen of Belgium by the “Social Old Guard,” or the “Knickerbocker dowagers” observing “the strange preferences of His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales,” during his visit the previous year. “Talk” also referred to the upcoming visit by “Her Majesty of Rumania” and her “shrewd plans for a matrimonial alliance.”

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine also made note of an illustration in the previous issue – a self-portrait by the famous American portrait painter George Luks, who as a joke signed his drawing “Gene Tunney.” The champion boxer was reportedly a friend of Luks.

“Talk” reported that the actor John Barrymore was back from a London season of Hamlet and was once again contemplating a movie role. It was noted that he was wearing “Le Valentino medal,” an award given him for best screen acting of the year (I’m not sure if “Le Valentino” was a real award or some joke about Rudolph Valentino, but it is worth noting that the first Academy Awards ceremony was still four years into the future). Among those traveling abroad were playwright Marc Connelly, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs, and “Mr. Asa Yoelson,” who “booked passage as Al Jolson.” The violinist Jascha Heifitz became an American citizen, “Squire Heywood Broun” was “enjoying a nervous breakdown,” and cartoonist Jay Darling (known as “Ding”) was “convalescing under sunny Iowan skies.”

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Political cartoon by Jay “Ding” Darling featuring Russian Communist leaders Lenin and Trotsky, originally published in March 1925. The caption read: “Seems as if five years ought to be enough to do the trick in even if they didn’t know how in the beginning.” Originally from Iowa, Ding worked at the New York Globe and Herald Tribune, but in 1919 he returned to Iowa to work at the Des Moines Register. He won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1924 and again in 1943. (Image: Iowa Digital Library)

In a feature titled “A Mob and a Machine,” novelist and social critic Waldo Frank (writing under the pen name “Searchlight”) penned a sour account of an opening day baseball game at the Polo Grounds between the New York Giants and the Boston Braves.

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Waldo Frank, circa 1923 (photo by Alfred Stieglitz)

Frank wrote of the “abyss” that separated the game “from the vast crowds that watch it” and the specialized play of the game where “Batsman and fielder mechanically carry out motions whose plan and purpose are established for them.”

That is why, observed Frank, that Babe Ruth…

…ignoble, fat fellow that he is—deserves his vogue…It is such as he who enable the wistful mob to have some sort of contact with the game. For baseball is only clockwork; but the Bab is a boy—moody, clever, tangible and human…The Babe’s home run is an effort on the part of the machine to connect with the crowd. When the ball reaches the bleachers, contact is established.

Frank wrote that after the game is ended, “we can pack ourselves like grains of sand into a stifled elevated train, and read in the headlines of the paper we have just bought, what a significant national event we have just witnessed.”

Lamenting the loss of the “old-fashioned, humble game,” Frank wrote that like everything else in America “the Game’s gotten bigger—and that means better…It used to be a enjoyable means of moving our bodies. Not any more. Now, there’s a machine that does the moving, while our forty thousand bodies sit packed and rancid in the grandstands.”

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The Polo Grounds in 1923 (Wikipedia)

“The Theatre” section reported that Oscar Hammerstein (later to become half of the famed Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical juggernaut) had engaged “two girls” for a performance at his Victoria Theatre. The “girls,” who had been arrested, tried and acquitted of shooting a W.E. Stokes in the ankle, were identified as Ethel Conrad and Lillian Graham. Their subsequent notoriety led to their hiring by Hammerstein for a singing act that The New Yorker described as “a terrible frost;” the duo reportedly left the stage after their debut performance “without a ripple of applause from the audience.” The girls’ act was arranged by Loney Haskell, who after the performance asked the opinion of song writer Jim Thornton. Thornton replied: “By golly, they’ll have to shoot a couple of men to get in next week.”

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Paul Robeson in 1925 (Independent)

“Profiles” featured Max Steuer, a famed American trial attorney, while the “Music” section mentioned Paul Robeson’s “recital of negro spirituals” at the Greenwich Village Theatre, noting that “there are few artists who can equal him in getting inside a song and becoming part of it.”

“Of All Things” reports that “the Babeless New York” was in sixth place in the American League and “hobnobbing with such shady characters as Boston and Detroit. The Yanks are slumming.”

The Banqueting Wars

“The Talk of the Town” opened with musings on the “banqueting” ritual practiced by various celebrities in Manhattan, in this case the silent film stars Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri, and Tom Mix.

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April 25, 1925 cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The magazine noted that “Banquets are given upon a star’s departure and upon return, and each succeeding one must be bigger and better than ever.” Even the star of silent Westerns, Tom Mix, had a dinner in his honor when he visited the city with his fourth wife, Victoria Forde. “Talk” made this observation:

True, this cowpuncher, who sets fashion by wearing wine-colored evening clothes and with overcoats rimmed with brown leather for morning wear, did not elect to outdo Pola Negri. His was a modest affair held in the Hotel Astor, at which, however, Mrs. Mix was able to display the discomforts of being wealthy by having such an armful of glistening bracelets as made necessary treatment by a masseuse of muscles lamed by bearing such weight of jewels.

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Tom Mix and Victoria Forde (listal.com)
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Pola Negri

In Pola Negri’s case, a bon voyage banquet was given at the Ritz-Carlton (she was headed to Europe) and among the guests were the familiar faces of writer Michael Arlen and movie producer Jesse Lasky, who announced that Arlen would be writing “special stories” to be used as screen vehicles for Negri.

As for Gloria Swanson (returned from France, more on that below) she was “in the happy position of having a contract for one more year with the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, whose officials are greatly concerned lest Cecil B. DeMille wean from them their popular actress.” To ensure Swanson’s happiness, Lasky and Adolph Zukor hosted a banquet and dance in her honor at Park Lane. It was reported that Swanson “was signally honored” when she entered the room to greet her 300 guests:

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Gloria Swanson (United Artists)

The lights were turned off as she took her seat; a spotlight was thrown on her shingled head, and the orchestra struck up her new national anthem, “La Marseillaise”…Girls in Marie Antoinette costumes wended their way among the tables, passing around Napoleonic paper hats, singularly appropriate for the gentlemen who wore them.

“Talk” also offered the latest observations from the magazine’s “Prohibition Authority” regarding the Coast Guard’s inability to stem the flow of Scotch whisky into the city: “Human nature is frail and large operators can afford to offer rewards far above Government pay, all for a little blindness.” Despite a Coast Guard effort to stop smugglers, Scotch remained “plentiful and reasonably priced.”

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April 8, 1925, New York Times

Other “Talk” items of note: “King” Babe Ruth, after eating his “fourth breakfast porterhouse and a rough train ride,” fell ill in Asheville, N.C. (he was taken to the hotel on a stretcher, clad in pink pajamas he insisted on wearing)…The Bronxville Golf Club “decided to go stag,” and bar women from membership…Noting that New Yorkers treat their city’s landmarks with amazing indifference, it was announced that the Brevoort Mansion was to be torn down. It was described as “a huge brownstone pile, of stern aspect. It looks like a mausoleum.”

When Henry Breevort Jr. built the mansion at Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street in 1834, it marked the beginning of the transformation of Fifth Avenue from a rutted road into the destination for old and new money alike. According to the excellent blog No Place For Normal: New York, in the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the “axis of elegance” was enhanced by the opening of Central Park in 1859 and by fortunes fattened by Civil War contracts.

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Cornelius Vanderbilt II House on “Millionaires Row” (nyc-architecture.com)

Then during the last several decades of the 19th century, known as the “Gilded Age,” brownstone mansions like Breevort’s were supplanted by ornate French chateau-style mansions, and “a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue,” which came to be known as “Millionaires Row” (and famously known for the social wars between the Astors and Vanderbilts among others).

The early 20th century saw Fifth Avenue transformed from a place of elegant mansions to a place of elegant hotels and stores. The first years of The New Yorker would witness this transformation as one mansion after another fell to the commercial interests of the booming 1920s.

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“Profile” illustration

“Profile” examined the life of Samuel Goldwyn, “The Celluloid Prince,” whose rule of life was that “in order to live, is not to let live…(this) means outstripping the other fellow by any means possible that does not land one in jail.” His rise from a glove maker to fame and fortune began around 1915 after he “saw a picture show and saw himself a millionaire simultaneously. He took his vision to Jesse Lasky, his brother-in-law, who was a vaudeville man at the time.” In ten years time “a man without background, without education…by sheer urge of some divine spark within him, he was able to build up that colossal enterprise at Culver City.”

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Adele and Fred Astaire in Lady Be Good (nickelinthemachine)

Listings in the “Goings On” section (subtitled The New Yorker’s conscientious calendar of events worth while) included George Gershwin’s Lady Be Good at the Liberty Theatre, with the brother-sister dancing team Fred and Adele Astaire. Movies playing included Grass at the Criterion (“Remarkable film panorama of a primitive Persian tribe on its migration in search of food”).

And in continuing Gloria Swanson news, it was noted that Swanson was appearing in a new moving picture, Madame Sans-Gêne, playing the role of  “the Napoleonic lady of historical romance. Color—and real Parisian backgrounds.”

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Swanson and Émile Drain (as Napoleon) in Madame Sans-Gêne (1925)

According to the site A Lost Film, Swanson took the role to “get away from Hollywood’s frivolous roles in which she felt her talent was under-used and she was little else than a clothes horse.” The lavish production, filmed at various French locations including Fontainebleau and Compiègne, was said to be Swanson’s favorite film. Although the film was released in both the U.S. and France, it is now lost, save for a snippet from the film’s trailer.

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Sports” offered this observation about the pantomime routine of Altrock and Schacht at a baseball game between Washington and New York (see clip at right).

Al Schacht’s ability to mimic other players from the coaching lines, and his comedy routines with fellow Washington coach Nick Altrock, earned him the nickname of “The Clown Prince of Baseball.”

If only the writer knew the extent to which his absurd suggestions would one day come true (and then some) in today’s jumbotron-dominated ballparks.

Ruth, as we know, did not play. By the Babe’s standards, it would prove to be a bad year for him, appearing in fewer than 100 games and batting .290. Somehow, though, this overweight wreck of a man still managed to score 25 home runs that year.

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Al Schacht and Nick Altrock in 1925 (Library of Congress)