Despite The New Yorker’s taste for the finer things–polo, opera, classical music–its editors couldn’t resist the pull of popular culture as both spectacle and fodder for mockery of the hoi polloi.
And so we have the Oct. 9, 1926 issue with a review of the much-anticipated Broadway play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was based on a surprise bestselling novel by Anita Loos (and illustrated by The New Yorker’s own Ralph Barton). Despite garnering lukewarm reviews from critics, the public loved the adventures of gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee.
According to Wikipedia, the book was one of several famous novels published in 1925 to chronicle the Jazz Age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (which ironically didn’t do so well) and Carl Van Vechten’s Firecrackers. Loos was inspired to write the book after watching a sexy blonde “turn intellectual H. L. Mencken into a lovestruck schoolboy.” Mencken, a close friend of Loos, actually enjoyed the work and saw to it that it was published.
Ralph Barton contributed this drawing of June Walker for the magazine’s review:
And a bit of the review itself…
In other items, Lois Long paid a visit to Texas Guinan’s 300 Club on 54th Street, which apparently was still the place to go for a roaring good time:
The magazine’s comics continued to mine the humor of rich old men out on the town with their young flapper mistresses. The one below was a center spread illustration by Wallace Morgan with the caption: “Poor little girl–to think you’ve never had anyone to protect you.”
Finally, a look back at one of my earlier blog posts (Cuban Idyll) that featured Americans in Havana. I recently traveled there and visited some of the old haunts, including the famed Sloppy Joe’s:
It was 1926 and another marvel of science–talking pictures–was unveiled to audiences at Broadway’s Warners’ Theatre. It was here that the Warner Brothers launched their ‘Vitaphone’ talkies including The Jazz Singer, which would premiere the following year.
The Vitaphone soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but rather recorded separately on phonograph record, the sound synchronized by physically coupling the record turntable to the film projection motor.
Don Juan was the first feature-length film to use the Vitaphone system, which was not a continuous soundtrack but rather a sprinkling of sound shorts (the musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic, and various sound effects) throughout the film. No spoken dialogue was recorded.
Produced at a cost of $789,963 (the largest budget of any Warner film up to that point), the film was critically acclaimed and a box-office success. However, and predictably, The New Yorker was not so impressed with Vitaphone…
…or the acting of John Barrymore…
I have to agree with the critic, identified only as O.C., after viewing this TCM clip of the film on YouTube. Lacking a voice, silent actors had to exaggerate emotions onscreen, but Barrymore here is every bit the ham. This screen grab from the clip says it all:
The object of his gaze, Adriana della Varnese (played here by a young Mary Astor), reacts rather dramatically to his advances…can’t say I blame her…(however, the 44-year-old Barrymore and the 20-year-old Astor were having an affair at the time…)
A couple of interesting ads in the Aug. 14, 1926 issue, including this one featuring a couple of sneaky gents who’ve found a solution to life in dry America…
…and this not-too-subtle message from a swanky shop on Fifth Avenue:
The glories of summertime filled the pages of the July 17, 1926 issue. The cover featured a stylish young couple enjoying a romantic evening on a moonlit lake, while the inside pages were filled with all sorts of outdoor activities ranging from dining and dancing to open air concerts and golf, lots of it.
There was a lengthy profile by Herbert Reed on golfing great Bobby Jones, a mere boy of 24 who competed as an amateur but often beat top pros such as Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen (in a few years Jones would help design the Augusta National Golf Club and co-found the Masters Tournament).
In “Sports of the Week,” Reed wrote about Jones’s second U.S. Open win, in Columbus, Ohio. Johan Bull offered this rendering of the runners-up:
And with the warm weather the tops were open on automobiles for both the rich:
And the not-so-rich:
And finally, Lois Long, fed up with reviewing restaurants, fires off a column about the sad state of drinking in America:
The Roaring Twenties were a strange confluence of the Puritan and libertine, perhaps best represented by Prohibition and the speakeasy night life it inspired. Many if not most of The New Yorker readers of the late 1920s were familiar with these establishments as well as with reliable bootleggers and rum runners. And for those of you following this blog we all know that “Tables for Two” columnist Lois “Lipstick” Long was THE voice of speakeasy and New York nightlife.
I should point out here that Prohibition did not make consumption of alcohol illegal. The 18th Amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages, but it did not prohibit their use.
So if you had a connection to a smuggler bringing whisky from Scotland via Canada, for example, you could enjoy a Scotch at home without too much trouble, although the prices could be high. “The Talk of the Town” editors regularly reported black market wine and liquor prices (I include an adjoining Julian de Miskey cartoon):
Note the mention of pocket flasks, which were an important item in a purse or vest pocket when one went to a nightclub or restaurant, where White Rock or some other sparkling water was sold as a mixer for whatever you happened to bring with you. You see a lot of this type of advertisement in the Prohibition-era New Yorker:
I’ll bet those grinning golfers have something in their bags besides clubs.
And then there were ads like these, which I find terribly sad:
“The Talk of the Town” also commented on the recent visit of British writer Aldous Huxley, who told his New York hosts that he admired American writers Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, and he also had praise for writer and critic H.L. Mencken, whom he likened to a farmer “of the better type:”
Other odds and ends from this issue…a clever drawing by Al Frueh for the “Profile” feature on New York Governor Al Smith:
I include a photo of Al Smith for comparison:
And this bit from “Of All Things,” complete with bad pun/racial slur:
New Yorker readers in 1926 had little reason to believe that in a decade Mussolini would try to make good on his statement and join Hitler in the next world war.
Here’s a couple more ads from the issue that are signs of those times. Note the listing of Florida locations for those New Yorkers who were flocking to that new winter vacation destination:
And this ad for an electric refrigerator…for those who could afford such newfangled things. The ice man was still plenty busy in 1926, but his days were numbered.
And finally, a nod to springtime, and this excerpt of an illustration by Helen Hokinson for the “Talk” section:
In her latest dispatch from Paris, correspondent Janet “Genet” Flanner offered New Yorker readers a glimpse into the French mind, its fear of “Americanization” and its perception of America’s Puritanical attitudes behind Prohibition.
All the more reason the French were bemused by reports that American and English citizens led the lists of reported drug raids in the City of Light…
or that somehow Prohibition was a question of theological differences:
The April 3, 1926 issue also offered up some curious advertisements. Aiming square at the grasping Anglophilia of New Yorker readers, here’s a pitch for a used Rolls Royce:
And with the money left over from your savings on the used Rolls, you could buy this 47-foot cruiser from the American Car and Foundry Company:
Moving along to the April 10, 1926 issue (cover designed by H.O. Hofman)…
…I discovered this clever “map” by John Held Jr. For fans of “Boardwalk Empire” or other 1920s gangster-themed fare, Held’s map confirms it was no secret that Atlantic City was a major port for rum runners:
Also on the theme of Prohibition, cartoonist James Daugherty (Jimmy the Ink) had some fun with New Yorker colleague Lois Long (aka “Lipstick”) by pairing her with New York’s top Prohibition prosecutor Emory Buckner in this unlikely scenerio:
Note the lock on the fire hydrant. Padlocking restaurants and clubs suspected of selling alcohol was a favorite tactic of Buckner and his agents. Long famously took him task in her Oct. 31, 1925 “Tables for Two” column. You can read about it here in my previous post, “How Dry I Am.”
Although they didn’t know it, thirsty New Yorkers still had more than six and half of years of Prohibition to endure, and business was brisk for the rum runners who plied the coastal waters.
The March 6, 1926 issue featured the article “Rum Runners Must Live,” in which writer Emile C. Schnurmacher described the heroic efforts of bootleggers and rum runners in keeping New York’s countless speakeasies (and many home liquor cabinets) well stocked. Some 30,000 speakeasies were opened in New York City alone during the Prohibition era.
Schnurmacher described the risky game of running “overboard stuff:”
He told of how one rum-running boat, the Sea Bird, made its way through Flushing Bay (to pick up bootleg Scotch) while evading the Coast Guard:
The boat later successfully delivered the “Scotch” near Yankee Stadium:
“The Talk of the Town” offered its regular update on bootleg prices. The local “synthetic” gin was reported to be of better quality than the imports, surprising given that synthetics poisoned a good number of folks back then:
The blog Speakeasy Science notes that during Prohibition, police department chemists, “analyzing the so-called gin in the Brooklyn bar and around the city, reported that much of it was industrial alcohol, re-distilled to try to remove the wood alcohol content. The re-distilling was not notably successful. The poisonous alcohol remained and there was more: the chemists had detected traces of kerosene and mercury, and disinfectants including Lysol and carbolic acid in the beverages.”
In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long (who imbibed her share of bootleg alcohol) paid a visit to the Algonquin hotel and took some playful swipes at the denizens the famed Round Table:
At the movies, Theodore Shane took deadly aim at the silent film version of the opera La Bohème:
And finally, Al Frueh’s sympathetic take on the wintertime toils of the rich:
If you are looking for a watershed moment in the history of The New Yorker, this is one of them. The issue of Nov. 28, 1925, featured an article written by 22-year-old Ellin Mackay titled “Why We Go To Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains.”
Mackay was the daughter of a Catholic multi-millionaire, Clarence McKay, who was threatening to disinherit his daughter because of her romance with Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin. Mackay’s essay explained why modern women were abandoning the forced social matchmaking of débutante balls in favor of the more egalitarian (and fun-loving) night club scene:
At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret…What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.
Mackay’s piece provided a huge boost to The New Yorker’s circulation, which had dipped below a death-rattle low of 3,000 in August 1925 before it rebounded a bit with new and more aggressive advertising and marketing strategies.
The “Debutante” article was featured on the front page of the New York Times, and was also covered on the front pages of other New York newspapers and even in papers across the country. By the end of the year circulation of The New Yorker neared 30,000.
TIME magazine later observed that with the Mackay piece, The New Yorker “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society. Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”
In The New Yorker’s 90th anniversary issue (Feb. 23, 2015), Ian Frazier wrote about the “débutante to the rescue in the Harold Ross era…”
Sometime during the magazine’s early months, Alice Duer Miller gave him (Ross) Ellin Mackay’s “Cabarets” essay. Jane Grant recalled that Ross kept it at the bottom of the pile of manuscripts he brought home, procrastinating because he liked Ellin and expected he would have to reject it, as he often did with others. Grant urged him to run the piece. “It will make wonderful publicity,” she said. Alexander Woollcott, the Times drama critic, with whom the Rosses shared a house…also championed Ellin’s piece. Woollcott knew her through Berlin, whose worshipful biography he had written.
Frazier writes, “In 1,076 words, the “Cabarets” essay had hit precisely the sophisticated young night-club-going, speakeasy-patronizing, up-and-coming, unimpressed-by-their-elders readership Ross was aiming for. The grateful editor gave Ellin Mackay a lifetime subscription to the magazine.” You can read Frazier’s entire article about Mackay and Berlin here.
Mackay, who would publish several novels, would marry Berlin on Jan. 4, 1926. The marriage would last until her death in 1988 at age 85. Berlin would die the following year at age 101.
Here is Mackay’s full article:
* * *
Even as one grand house after another fell to the wrecking ball along “Millionaires Row,” it was hard to believe that the Vanderbilt Mansion between 57th & 58th Streets would also succumb to the commercial interests transforming Fifth Avenue seemingly overnight.
“The Talk of the Town” noted that the doomed mansion, once the largest private home in New York City, was being descended upon by all manner of curiosity seekers:
According to writer Adrian Dannatt, the 130-room, full-scale Renaissance-style château was “originally built to accommodate an entire regal court, a small army, huntsmen and ladies in-waiting, but it was given over instead to a family of eight.”
This grand pile was designed by George B. Post in 1882, with interior design by John LaFarge and Augustus Saint-Gaudens among others. Post, along with Richard Morris Hunt, substantially expanded the house in 1893. Demolished in 1926, Bergdorf Goodman Department Store now occupies the site.
According to Benjamin Waldman, writing for untappedcities.com, a few remnants from the mansion weren’t reduced to dust, including a pair of monumental gates relocated to Central Park and two of six bas-relief sculptures by Karl Bitter that were relocated to the lobby of the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Apparently the other four disappeared without a trace.
A fireplace designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, topped with a John LaFarge mosaic, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is displayed in the courtyard of the museum’s American Wing.
“Profiles” looked at the life and work of movie director Cecil B. De Mille. R. E. Sherwood wrote that De Mille was the “archetype of the motion picture director—a composite photograph of all the Olympian gods who have descended from Mount Hollywood to dominate the earth.”
Harry Este Dounce (“Touchstone”) reviewed John Dos Passos’ new novel, Manhattan Transfer, and noted that Dos Passos’ version of Manhattan was “not the hypothetical typical New Yorker reader’s, but as far as this department knows, it is very much like the real, complete thing—which is to say, like a hell of chaotic futility.”
In “Sports of the Week,” football continued to dominate the column, with a report on Harvard and Yale battling to a 0-0 tie.
With this issue, “Motion Pictures” was moved from the “Critique” section and given its own page under the Johan Bull-illustrated heading “The Current Cinema.” Theodore Shane wrote that he found Laurence Stalling’s The Big Parade “utterly satisfying,” but he was less impressed with the much-hyped Stella Dallas, which he viewed as a contrived weeper designed to draw lovers of such fare to the box office.
Near the back of the magazine the editors printed an exhaustive list of prices on the bootleg liquor market. The prices are quite astonishing, given that $50 in 1925 would be the equivalent of roughly $675 today, based on inflation. Of course that number could vary depending on all sorts of other economic and historic factors, but nevertheless fascinating reading if you are into that sort of thing:
At the conclusion of “The Talk of the Town,” the editors offered this qualifying note regarding their liquor market list:
Mayor Jimmy Walker wasn’t known for being cerebral. But as the voters’ choice to lead the City of New York, he could not have been more well-suited (pun intended) to the zeitgeist of the final, dizzying, roaring years of The Jazz Age.
Walker was a flamboyant man-about-town, a clothes horse who was no stranger to speakeasies or the backroom politics of Tammany Hall.
As Jonathan Mahler wrote in New York magazine (April 1, 2012), Gentleman Jimmy “perfectly embodied that moment of indulgence: the public servant who favored short workdays and long afternoons at Yankee Stadium, who was loath to miss a big prizefight or Broadway premiere, who left his wife and Greenwich Village apartment for a chorus girl and a suite at the Ritz-Carlton.”
Not that there weren’t some concerns. “The Talk of the Town” offered this early observation of the incoming mayor:
Mahler quoted a columnist from Walker’s time, who noted that “No man could hold life so carelessly without falling down a manhole before he is done.” And Walker would fall to scandal by 1932. But we will get to that. For now, it’s party time in Gotham.
The New Yorker continued to have fun with President Calvin Coolidge, publishing this cartoon by Izzy Klein that took a poke at Coolidge’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, in which Coolidge spoke at length about the nation’s abundance:
Talk also reported the latest bootleg prices in “The Liquor Market…”
“Profiles” examined the life of New York Times owner Adolph Ochs. The writer Elmer Davis observed that “More than any other newspaper owner, he is his paper, and his paper is himself…”
In “The Theatre,” critic Herman J. Mankiewicz addressed criticisms of the Booth Theatre’s new approach to Hamlet, which was presented “in modern dress.” Mankiewicz wrote that the departure from traditional Elizabethan costumes had brought the play “into the open,” and that Basil Sydney was a “splendid” Hamlet.
In “Books,” reviewer Harry Este Dounce recommended Ford Madox Ford’s No More Parades (“a fine display of virtuoso writing”) and Arthur Schnitzler’s Fraulein Else (“a scintillant little firework”).
In “Motion Pictures,” Theodore Shane panned the movie Lord Jim (based on the Joseph Conrad novel), but he enjoyed the “simple hokum tale” of Bright Lights and the “restrained” performance of Pauline Starke, “a perfect miniature Gloria Swanson.”
In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long despaired of finding a decent “swank dinner” on a rainy autumn evening, and finally headed to a Viennese restaurant (Frau Greta’s) for some German comfort food. The rain turned to torrents as she then headed out for some nightlife:
Long concluded her “Tables” column with this peevish note on “grammar:”
In her other column, “On And Off The Avenue,” Long wrote about the increasing popularity of New Yorkers traveling to Florida for the winter, and in anticipation of the Christmas holiday, offered this advice on what not to give as gifts:
In her report from Paris, Janet Flanner commented on the popularity of Josephine Baker at the Champs Elysees Theater:
Flanner also commented on the growing appreciation of paintings by Henri Rousseau, who just a decade or so earlier was considered something of a joke among art circles:
And finally, Julian de Miskey’s take on The Big Game:
Silent film star (and sometime French “noble”) Gloria Swanson was back in the States after a summer sojourn at her Paris residence.
“The Talk of the Town” reported that she had arrived on the steamer Paris, with the great Polish pianist and statesman Jan Paderewski in tow…
Johan Bull’s take on Swanson’s grand arrival with Paderewski, who was much decorated as both a statesman and artist:
The New Yorker made light of the fact that Swanson assumed a rather regal bearing not only as a famous film star but also as the new wife of French aristocrat Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, her third husband. In his column, “Of All Things,” Howard Brubaker added this swipe at the Swanson’s pretensions to royalty:
Although a marquis and member of the famous Hennessy Cognac family, Henri was not wealthy and worked for a living. He met Swanson when he was hired to be her assistant and interpreter during the filming of Madame Sans-Gêne (1925) in France. The match of a Hollywood star with European nobility made the marriage a global sensation.
The marriage ended in divorce in 1930. According to Wikipedia, (citing two books on the subject), Swanson had an affair with Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. for several years during her marriage to Henri:
Henri became a film executive representing Pathé (USA) in France through Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who was running the studio. Many now assume he was given the position, which kept him in France for ten months a year, to simply keep him (Henri) out of the way…(Kennedy) became her business partner and their relationship was an open secret in Hollywood. He took over all of her personal and business affairs and was supposed to make her millions. Unfortunately, Kennedy left her after the disastrous “Queen Kelly” and her finances were in worse shape than when he came into her life.
In another Talk item, the Sixth Avenue Elevated rail line continued to serve as a “blot” upon the city of New York:
According to a Wikipedia, the old Sixth Avenue El (constructed during the 1870s) was notoriously noisy, made buildings shake, and bombarded pedestrians underneath with dropping ash, oil, and cinders. Eventually, a coalition of commercial establishments and building owners would stage a successful campaign to have the El removed because it was hurting business and property values. It would be razed in 1939 and replaced by the underground IND Sixth Avenue Line.
The New Yorker also featured a lengthy interview with Emory Buckner (conducted by Morris Markey), in which the New York District Attorney discussed his approach to Prohibition enforcement, including the padlocking of restaurants and clubs found to be serving alcohol. In a surprisingly frank interview, Buckner said his zealous crusade had nothing to do with moral conviction:
Buckner also admitted that the government wasn’t making a serious effort to enforce Prohibition (e.g. low salaries for agents), and if it wasn’t going to make the effort then the law should be repealed. Markey concluded his article with words of surprising admiration for a man who had been so thoroughly excoriated in previous issues of The New Yorker.
In other items, theatre critic Herman J. Mankiewicz stepped out of the “Critique” section to write about his experience travelling by train to a football game. He found the whole spectacle (especially the coonskin coat-clad fans) wanting.
Waldo Frank contributed a profile of the popular poet Carl Sandburg, whom he described as moving “through the Machine of our world” with “a peasant’s mind.” Frank used the term not necessarily as a criticism but as a way to describe Sandburg’s Midwestern simplicity. However, a drawing by James House Jr. that accompanied the article depicted Sandburg not as a man of letters, but more like some dim-witted forebear of Homer Simpson:
The actor Leslie Howard contributed another humorous piece to The New Yorker titled “Such is Fame,” accompanied by this Julian de Miskey illustration:
Theodore Shane reported in “Motion Pictures” that Rudolph Valentino appeared in person at the opening of his new film, The Eagle. Known for his aversion to public appearances, Valentino handled the occasion with a silent flourish:
At the end of his column Shane included this exchange with novelist and playwright Edna Ferber, who was also one of the regular wits at the Algonquin Round Table:
In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long wrote about the opening of the Nineteenth Hole Club at the Roosevelt Hotel, and noted that the putting greens on either side of the dance floor offered “additional uplift” to short skirts worn by some female patrons:
She closed her column with this observation and a “warning” about “Lipstick” imposters:
This was a familiar jest by Lois Long in her “Tables for Two” column–describing herself as short and squat–since most readers did not know her true identity or appearance, which was quite the opposite.
In Long’s other column, “On And Off The Avenue,” she offered this advice to women who were fashion-conscious but also thrifty:
The woes of Prohibition were acutely felt by the readership of The New Yorker. The magazine responded in kind with its continued criticism of the law’s enforcement and particularly the tactics of Manhattan District Attorney Emory C. Buckner, whose agents continued to padlock restaurants and clubs suspected of selling alcohol.
The New Yorker previously called the padlocking tactic a “promotional stunt” that would ultimately backfire (I wrote about this in a previous blog post last March).
Both the “The Talk of the Town” and “Tables for Two” took aim at Buckner this time around. “Talk” led with this item, accompanied by the art of Johan Bull:
“Talk” also made a call to action by “men of virtue:”
Heck with statements. Lois Long just wanted to have some fun, and led her column, “Tables for Two,” with her own attack on Buckner and on the “stupidity” of establishments that were closed by Buckner’s agents (I include art that accompanied the column by Frank McIntosh–at least that is what I think the “FM” stands for; if I am in error, someone please correct me!):
In a previous column (Oct. 17), Long pondered the popularity of a new dance, the “Charleston.” She closed her Oct. 31 column with “telegrams” from exemplary colleges in answer to the query: “Is the Charleston being done at college dances?”
“W.J. Henderson wrote a lengthy article about the upcoming opera season at the Metropolitan Opera (it was opening with La Gioconda), and recalled the days after World War I when the once-popular German singers suddenly grew scarce on the American stage.
According to Henderson, this led to a general falling off of quality in the performances, a situation made even worse by the absence of the late, great Enrico Caruso on the Metropolitan’s stage.
In other items, John Tunis wrote about Illinois All-American halfback Red Grange in “Profiles,” calling him “a presentable youth of twenty-two…well-groomed, he would pass anywhere—even in the movies—for a clean type of American manhood.”
Tunis also noted that Grange had been offered a “half a million” to star in movies, and that professional football was ready to offer him a sum “that would cause even the once-mighty Ruth to blanch.” Grange, known as “The Galloping Ghost,” would later join the Chicago Bears and help to legitimize the National Football League (NFL).
The young actor Leslie Howard, who was appearing on Broadway in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, wrote a humorous account of theatre life in “The Intimate Diary of An Opening Night.”
It was one of seven articles on the acting life that Howard (perhaps best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind) would write for The New Yorker between 1925 and 1927.
For the record, I include Howard’s first New Yorker article here:
“Motion Pictures” looked at Buster Keaton’s new film, Go West…
Theodore Shane wrote that what at first seemed to be a real weeper…
…turned into a comic romp thanks to the introduction of the “sad-eyed cow…”
And finally, in keeping with the Prohibition theme, here is a center-spread cartoon by Rea Irvin that seemed to depict the results of consuming too much bootleg booze: