A Bird’s Eye View

The New Yorker’s E.B. White was an aviation enthusiast who rhapsodized about his flights into the clouds, but also had prescience to see the darker side of this modern thrill ride.

October 6, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

Writing in the “Reporter at Large” column for the Oct. 6, 1928 issue, White described his visit to Curtiss Field, where he inquired about a pilot who could fly him over New York City. He was told someone named Bill would take him up.

EARLY BIRD…This Fairchild FC-2 Cabin Monoplane, with strut-supported wing, was probably similar to the plane E.B. White rode in his flight over New York City. (Quora)

After a half hour wait, a man in a gray felt hat and sack suit offered White a cigarette and said, “You want to fly over New York?” Although the man didn’t look like a pilot, White followed him to a “little cabin monoplane.” Without saying another word the man took the plane up into the air, much to White’s surprise:

FLYBOY…E.B. White (left) with friend and New Yorker colleague James Thurber in 1929. (University of Virginia)

White described the various sites from 800 feet up, including Coney Island, a view at once beautiful and foreboding…

AMUSING SIGHT…Aerial view of Coney Island in 1920. (Pinterest)

…and the thrill of the approaching city skyline as his plane soared up the Bay toward Manhattan:

Lower Manhattan looking northeast from the Bay in July 1927. This is approximately the view described by E.B. White as his plane approached Manhattan. (Favrify.com)
A closer view of lower Manhattan as it would have appeared to E.B. White on his 1928 flight over New York City. (Fairchild Aerial Survey photo, 1928)

Once over the city, White could not help but contain his exuberance, soaring high above the towering spires and teeming crowds below:

And yet as I noted earlier, his observations were tinged with melancholy and foreboding. In describing his flight over Coney Island, for example, White concluded that “the world in general seems sadly beautiful, it is so soon to be gone entirely.”

Perhaps he referred to the rapid changes seen daily in the city during the 1920s, when nothing seemed permanent. Or did this bird’s eye view suggest something else to White? Twenty years later, in his 1948 essay “Here is New York,” White would write:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Unlike 1928, White had the hindsight of World War II, of entire cities leveled by waves of heavy bombers, or in the case of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just a single bomb. The foreshadowing of 9/11 is contained in his words as well.

Back on the ground at Curtiss Field, White would finally learn the identity of the man who didn’t look like a pilot, but had just flown him over the city:

Another Vantage Point

With buildings rising ever higher in Manhattan, you could get a pretty good view of the surrounding city by taking an elevator to the rooftop of the latest skyscraper. The Oct. 6 “Talk of the Town” found a good perch atop the 680-foot-tall Chanin building on the southwestern corner of Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street.

THINGS ARE LOOKING UP…The Chanin Building at Lexington and 42nd. Sloan & Robertson Architects, 1928. (Favrify.com)

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From Our Advertisers

Something you never see in the New Yorker anymore, or in most magazines for that matter, are ads promoting various brands of gasoline. This one touts the benefits of Tydol, produced by the (now defunct) Tide Water Oil Company of New York:

For our Oct. 6 cartoon, here is one of Rea Irvin’s occasional multi-panel, two-page comic spreads, this one exploring the ordeal of a man who couldn’t think of the word for a type of natural plastic used in the 1920s (click to enlarge image):

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The Oct. 13, 1928 issue featured a notable short story by Thyra Samter Winslow, a writer who contributed nearly a dozen pieces to the New Yorker in 1927 and 1928.

October 13, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Her short story on page 25, “But for the Grace of God,” was a “key transitional work” for the magazine, according to Ben Yagoda in his book About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made. He writes: “Realistic fiction thrives in periods of social ambiguity and flux, and the attention to class was on of the factors working to propel New Yorker writing from two-dimensional sketches to fleshed out short stories.” Yagoda observes that Winslow’s story, “in its carefully selected details, its mild epiphany, and its attention to the potency of class…is an accomplished and poignant piece of short fiction.” Excerpts:

GROUNDBREAKER…Thyra Samter Winslow, circa 1920s. She wrote more than 200 pieces for New York magazines between 1915 to 1955, as well as Hollywood screenplays, early television scripts, and several books. She was married to New Yorker staff writer Fillmore Hyde. (playinginthepages.blogspot.com)

You can read more about Thyra Samter Winslow in Savannah Fry’s excellent blog, Playing the Pages.

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The New Yorker continued its stubborn refusal to report on baseball in its sports section, even though the Yankees were in the process of taking their second consecutive World Series title with a 4-0 sweep over the favored St. Louis Cardinals. The magazine did, however, mention the game in the Oct. 13, 1928 “Talk of the Town” — not on how it was played, but rather on how the championship money was distributed among players and assistants:

Money matters in the game of sport were more informal 90 years ago, with players themselves divvying up money to other players, trainers, mascots and batboys. For example, in 1927 Yankees batboy Eddie Bennett received $700 for the one-eighth World Series share voted him by the team. This sum earned over the four days of the series nearly equalled a batboy’s pay for a full year.

GOOD LUCK CHARM…Yankee batboy Eddie Bennett in the 1920s. Although a spinal injury as an infant left him hunchbacked, Bennett would serve as Yankee batboy for 12-years — a period that would include seven pennants and four World Series titles. (sabr.org)

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Although European-inspired modern furniture was all the rage among certain members of the New York smart set, writer Joseph Fulling Fishman (best known for his writing on contemporary prison conditions) offered a dissenting view in the Oct. 13 edition. An excerpt:

In the art review section, critic Murdock Pemberton also seemed a bit perplexed by modern design, in this case by the work of Ukrainian-born avant-garde artist Alexander Archipenko. His Archipentura was an electronic machine that displayed pre-loaded images of a female undressing by rolling painted canvas through a complex system of sprockets and belts. He intended the machine “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” Pemberton observed:

THINK DIFFERENTLY…Alexander Archipenko (right, circa 1920), intended his intended his Archipentura machine (pictured in front and side views) “to do for painting what the motion picture did for photography.” (Wikipedia/Archipenko Foundation)

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From Our Oct. 13 Advertisers

Yet another endorsement for cigarettes from the posh set. This time Melachrino Cigarettes got in on the action with this endorsement by Augusta Barney Harriman.

For our cartoon, Peter Arno once again looked in on the mannerisms of the upper class, contrasting a lithe young flapper with the imposing presence of a battle-axe. Note how the young woman uses the archaic British “mater” in reference to her mother…

Next Time: The Prohibition Portia…

Literary Rotarians

Dorothy Parker had a particular aversion to intellectual snobs, and in the Feb. 11, 1928 issue she wrote that the city had been beset with “Literary Rotarians” in search of bookish gatherings attended by people who, according to Parker, “looked as if they had been scraped out of drains.”

February 11, 1928. The cover is unsigned, but looks like a Rea Irvin to me.

I would have to say Parker was on firm ground here. Her own writing was clear and unaffected, and her tastes were democratic (she enjoyed and even wrote about comic strips). So when the book dandies crossed her path, there was trouble:

BOOK LOVERS…Rice University’s Pallas Athene literary society in 1927. No doubt most of them were interesting, bright young women. However, can you spot the “Rotarians?” (caralangston.com)
AND FROM THE OTHER GENDER…representatives of the Clio literary society at Elon University, circa 1920s. Did one of these lads ever cross Dorothy’s path? (belkarchives.wordpress.com)

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Parker continued, recalling the trauma she once endured at a literary association dinner:

Thumb on the Scale of Justice

An unfortunate aspect of American life is how the law is selectively applied to favor those in power. Such was the case of Florence Knapp, who was elected as New York’s Secretary of State in 1924. After leaving office in 1926, she was accused of maladministration, and two years later was convicted of grand larceny while in office—Knapp put her stepdaughter’s name on the state payroll during the administration of the 1925 census, then cashed the checks herself, apparently using the funds to purchase clothes.

BRIEF CAREER…Florence Knapp (left) and Anna Drury DeWitt at State Republican Convention Sept. 28, 1926. Knapp was Secretary of State and DeWitt was delegate and member of Women’s Republican State Executive Committee. (findagrave.com)

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In a special article for the New Yorker, contributing writer Hugh O’Connor did not disagree with Knapp’s guilt, but found the hypocrisy of her accusers hard to stomach. Some excerpts:

Just in case anyone thought this was solely a Republican hit job, O’Connor concluded that the other side was just as complicit in keeping women from high office:

For the record, Knapp was the last Secretary of State elected to that office in New York. After Knapp the office became appointive by the governor, and remains so today. It would be 50 years until another woman would be elected to a statewide office in New York.

Opening Eyes to Red Russia

The New Yorker encouraged open-minded readers to check out a new exhibition on Soviet Russia that offered an alternative vision of a young country beset by famine and political violence:

The exhibition featured hand-carved toys probably similar to these:

SOMETHING FOR THE LITTLE COMMIES…Toy Red Army soldier and sailor from the Zagorsk area. Painted wood, circa 1930. (soviet-art.ru)

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Also featured were pieces of “boldly propagandistic china.” Below are some examples of period pieces, not necessarily featured in the exhibition but perhaps give some idea of what New Yorkers were viewing in 1928. They range from kitschy…

At left, Woman Embroidering a Banner, by Natalia Danko of the State Porcelain Factory, Petrograd,1919. At right, decorative vase depicting The Liberated People, with Vladimir Lenin’s portrait below banners and scenes of life in different nations, by Maria Lebedeva of the State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, 1929. (Photo © The Petr Aven Collection)

…to the stunningly avant garde….

At left, a vase with ornamental Suprematist elements by Nikolai Suetin, for the State Porcelain Factory, Leningrad, 1930. At right, a plate with Suprematist composition by Kazimir Malevich,1923. (Photo © The Petr Aven Collection)

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Woof for Westminster

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” was abuzz with anticipation for the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden. The article noted that the record price paid for a dog was $9,500 (roughly equivalent to $133,000 today). By comparison, in 2014 a Chinese property developer paid nearly $2 million for a Tibetan mastiff puppy.

Note how the writer of the “Talk”  piece already knows that the “wire-haired terrier” has the inside track to victory:

SPOILER ALERT…Talavera Margaret, a Wire Fox Terrier, was named winner (Best of Show) at the 1928 Westminster Kennel Club dog show. The Wire Fox Terrier breed has won Best of Show at Westminster more than any other breed, sweeping the award 13 times between 1915 and 1992. The Terrier Group overall is the most successful group, with 45 wins out of 103 occasions. (westminsterkennelclub.org)

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Advertisers in the New Yorker also had Westminster fever, including sporting goods purveyor Abercrombie & Fitch (note the breed of the tartan-clad dog):

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I found this advertisement in the back pages interesting because it called out the  New Yorker’s Lois Long, who wrote her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” under the pseudonym “Lipstick.” The drawing for the ad was provided by Rea Irvin, the artist who gave the magazine its signature look.

In her nightlife column Long played coy with her readers, careful not to reveal her true identity. She teased about being a “short squat maiden of forty,” but when she married cartoonist and fellow New Yorker contributor Peter Arno in August 1927, word was out about her true identity. Irvin’s drawing aptly captures Long in her early years at the New Yorker, on a writer’s salary but nevertheless fashionably dressed, partying all night and heading home with the rising sun.

THE REAL LIPSTICK…A staged and posed joke photo of a young lady in prim 1890s clothes (at left) pretending to be startled by a 1920s flapper (Lois Long, at right). Photo taken in the mid to late 1920s. (Wikipedia)

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And finally, a great illustration that graced the bottom of the “Talk” section. If anyone knows the artist, please comment!

Next Time: Speakeasy Nights…

The Vicious Circle

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June 27, 1925, cover by Julian de Miskey (New Yorker digital archive)

With a lull in the news from the Scopes Trial, the June 27, 1925 is another hodgepodge of seemingly random bits. Perhaps this is a good time to look at  some of the magazine’s early artists, editors and writers.

The masthead of the very first issue listed these founding Advisory Editors: Ralph Barton, Marc Connelly, Rea Irvin, George S. Kaufman, Alice Doerr Miller, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott. Not listed was founding editor Harold Ross.

The list remained the same for the June 27 issue, minus Ralph Barton. His story is rather sad.

In his day, Barton was well known for his celebrity caricatures, the most famous being his group drawings. He was also a regular early contributor to The New Yorker of brief theater reviews that were accompanied by a large illustration:

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(New Yorker digital archive)

Despite his short stint as a New Yorker advisory editor, the Kansas City native contributed often to the magazine during its first years. Barton also contributed drawings to such publications as Collier’s, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar.

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Ralph Barton in 1926 (Wikipedia)

Although his work earned him an impressive income, Barton was a manic-depressive with four failed marriages. In May 1931 he shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown penthouse. He was only 39.

According to Wikipedia, Barton wrote in a suicide note that he had irrevocably “lost the only woman I ever loved” (the actress Carlotta Monterey, who divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929), and that he feared his worsening manic-depression was approaching insanity.

Portrait_of_Eugene_O'Neill_and_Carlotta_Monterey_O'Neill
Carl Van Vechten photograph of Carlotta Monterey and Eugene O’Neill, 1933 (Library of Congress)

Following his death, Barton’s artistic reputation quickly dropped from sight, due not only to his demise but also to the waning of the Jazz Age subjects he drew with such verve:

RalphBartonExtract
A 1921 Vanity Fair Hollywood caricature by Ralph Barton. (Wikipedia)

A 1928 letter from Harold Ross to Barton (posted on The American Reader website) seems to be an attempt by Ross to cheer up the artist:

Wednesday 27 June 1928

Dear Ralph,

I was on the brink of writing you when your letter came—this morning—telling me about your latest predicament. I knew, of course, that you had reached some conclusion as this. You are a creative soul and therefore a restless soul; therefore, a damn fool. I would leave this to any fair-minded banker. I wish I were a banker. I also wish I were Henry Ford or anybody who can accept the church, the government, conventions, and all those things.

I also had house trouble. I am thinking of burning the damn thing down. The insurance would net a tidy bit of cash and would enable me to get a room somewhere and fit up what I really ought to have. I am not competent to manage more space than this. I would be if I were a fairy. Fairies are the happiest people there are. All editors ought to be fairies. I fuss around with commas, semi-colons, dictionaries, and wordings, and it drives me crazy. I am too virile. I ought to be building subways. I was thinking of going to the North Pole with the Byrd expedition but that would take a year or two and I can spare, at most, only two months. It probably would be a bore anyhow. All life is a bore if you think at all…

As ever,

Ross

Others listed on The New Yorker masthead were associated with legendary Algonquin Round Table, including the playwrights Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman and writers Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott–all charter members. The writer Alice Duer Miller was also an occasional guest of this “Vicious Circle,” as they called themselves. From roughly 1919 to 1929, they met every day for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel.

Algonquin_Hotel_in_Murray_Hill
The Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street (towntopics.com)

Other regular Round Table members included Harold Ross, Franklin Pierce Adams, (best known for his newspaper column, “The Conning Tower”), New Yorker humorist Robert Benchley, husband-wife writers Heywood Broun and Ruth Hale, broadway producer Brock Pemberton, playwright Robert Sherwood and broadway publicist John Peter Toohey.

Those who moved in and out of the circle included feminist writer Jane Grant (who with her first husband Harold Ross co-founded The New Yorker), vaudeville comedian and later film star Harpo Marx, actresses Peggy Wood, Tallulah Bankhead, Lynn Fontanne and Margolo Gillmore, actor and director Alfred Lunt, playwrights Edna Ferber and David Ogden Stewart, humorist Frank Sullivan, writers Margaret Leech and Frank Crowninshield, illustrator Neysa McMein, playwright Beatrice Kaufman (George’s wife) and composer Deems Taylor.

It is important to make note of these various players in the “Vicious Circle,” since they figure prominently both as contributors and subjects in the early issues of The New Yorker.

table
Famed Al Hirschfeld illustration from 1962 of the Algonquin Round Table includes (counterclockwise, from far left) Dorothy Parker, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Edna Ferber, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly, Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott, and Robert Benchley. Rounding out the back row are, from left, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, Frank Crowninshield and hotel manager Frank Case. (Al Hirschfeld Foundation)

A prominent name on The New Yorker’s masthead absent from the Round Table is graphic artist Rea Irvin, creator of the magazine’s distinctive look and its mascot, Eustace Tilley.

Original_New_Yorker_cover
Rea Irvin’s Eustace Tilley on Issue #1 (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Irvin signed on as an advisory editor with the assumption that the magazine would fold after a few issues. Little did he realize that his illustrations, department headings, caricatures, and cartoons would grace the pages of The New Yorker for many years; that he would go on to illustrate 169 covers between 1925 and 1958; and that his distinctive typeface and mascot would continue to serve the magazine to this very day (Irvin died in 1972 at age 90).

Not to give the June 27 issue short shrift, “The Talk of the Town” reported Roald Amundsen had returned from his North Pole flight; “Profiles” looked at the life of theatrical producer Morris Gest; and “Books” offered a brief and somewhat mixed review of D.H. Lawrence’s new book, St. Mawr.

nazimova-nerman-caricature
In The New Yorker’s “Critique” section, a terrific caricature of Russian-American actress Alla Nazimova, by Swedish artist Einar Nerman (New Yorker Digital Archive)

In “The Theatre,” W.C. Fields continued to impress in his performances with the Ziegfeld Follies. The New Yorker noted that Fields was becoming a “talking comedian” comparatively late in life, and that after 26 years “as a straight and comic juggler,” he has become “ever so many people’s favorite comedian.” Under “Moving Pictures” it was also observed that D. W. Griffith’s Sally of the Sawdust was going to “put W.C. Fields across as a big screen comedian. Wait and see!”

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Sideshow “Professor” Eustace McGargle (W.C. Fields) and his ward, Sally (Carole Dempster, who was director D.W. Griffith’s real-life lover and protégée) are circus carnies in Sally of the Sawdust (1925). The movie was based on Fields’ stage hit Poppy, and featured stage legend Alfred Lunt in a rare film role. (Film Forum)

The June 27 issue offered yet another full page cartoon, this time by Gardner Rea, taking aim at the droll antics of the moneyed classes:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And finally, we are shown the answer to the mystery drawing by Covarrubias–ahem–an advertisement for a photography studio:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)