Nothing Like the Roxy

Jazz Age New York City was all about the big and grand, and nothing was bigger and grander than the new Roxy Theatre near Times Square.

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March 19, 1927 cover by W. Beothling.

The nearly 6,000-seat theatre was such big news that the March 19, 1927 edition of the New Yorker heralded its arrival in three separate columns.

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OPENING NIGHT at the Roxy Theatre. (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

The Roxy opened with the silent film The Love of Sunya, produced by and starring Gloria Swanson. The film, naturally, was panned by the magazine. Perhaps the critic’s distaste for the film also prompted a certain aloofness about the theatre itself:

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NOT EXACTLY YOUR LOCAL CINEPLEX…The Roxy Theatre lobby featuring the “world’s largest oval rug” manufactured by Mohawk Carpets. The theatre was torn down in 1960 and replaced by an office building. A TGI Friday’s restaurant is now located in the space that once housed this grand lobby. (screensonhigh.wordpress.com)
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NOT ANOTHER BAD NEW YORKER REVIEW?…Gloria Swanson consults a crystal ball to learn her future with three different men in The Love of Sunya. (gswanson.weebly.com)

“The Talk of the Town” described the Roxy in similar dispassionate terms, tossing a wet blanket not on the film but rather on the rude, gawking masses who shelled out 11 bucks apiece (equivalent to $150 today) for a seat on opening night:

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THEY WERE AWESTRUCK…The stage and orchestra pit of the Roxy Theatre (elixinhollywood.blogspot.com)

New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (pen name “T-Square”) was a bit more generous in his column “The Sky Line.”

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DUBBED ‘THE CATHEDRAL OF THE MOTION PICTURE’ by creator and namesake Samuel ‘Roxy’ Rothafel, the Roxy was located at 153 West 50th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. It was torn down in 1960. (nycago.com)
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COMING FULL CIRCLE…Gloria Swanson was photographed by Eliot Elisofon in the ruins of the Roxy Theatre on October 14, 1960. (Life Magazine)

 *  *  *

The magazine took an unusual approach to its “Profile” section by featuring an autobiographical profile of poet Elinor Wylie in verse, a portion of which is shown below with an illustration by Peter Arno:

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 *  *  *

Morality-themed books got the attention of New Yorker book reviewer Ernest Boyd (pen name “Alceste), who devoted considerable ink to Anthony Comstock: Roundsman of the Lord by Heywood Broun and Margaret Leech (both of Algonquin Round Table fame). Comstock was a United States Postal Inspector and politician known for the “Comstock Law,” which sought to censor materials he considered indecent and obscene. That included birth control information, which led to famous clashes between Comstock and family planning advocate Margaret Sanger.

An advertisement for the book appeared in the back pages of the magazine:

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Boyd also reviewed Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry, a controversial novel that exposed the hypocrisy of some 1920s evangelical preachers:

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  *  *  *

This advertisement began to appear in the pages of the New Yorker for a new restaurant that claimed to replace the beloved Delmonico’s. Despite its status as a New York institution, Delmonico’s had fallen victim to the changing dining habits of Prohibition New York and had closed its doors in 1923:

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The restaurant was operated by the Happiness Candy Stores chain, which according to the ad also operated restaurants in two other locations in the city. The restaurants must have been short-lived, as I could find no record of them apart from the ads.

Next Time: The Garden City…

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World of Tomorrow

The much-anticipated German expressionist film, Metropolis, opened at Manhattan’s Rialto Theatre. Although considered today to be a classic of the silent era, the March 12, 1927 New Yorker found the film to be overlong and preachy despite its fantastic setting and complex special effects.

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March 12, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Set in a futuristic dystopia in which the wealthy ruling classes lived high above the toiling masses, the film followed the attempts of a wealthy son of the city’s ruler and a poor working woman named Mary to overcome the city’s gaping class divisions.

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The city of tomorrow as portrayed in the opening scenes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The New Yorker encouraged readers to see the film mostly for the special effects, but lamented its “Teutonic heaviness” and uninspired acting. (archhistdaily)

An excerpt from the New Yorker review:

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The working masses toil in the dank world beneath the city in Metropolis. (myfilmviews.com)
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Brigette Helm’s duo portrayal of the noble Mary and her robotic double (here being created through cinematic magic) in Metropolis was praised by the New Yorker, which otherwise found the film’s acting subpar. (cinemagraphe.com)

Considered one of the most expensive movies of all time, Metropolis cost $5 million to film in 1925 (roughly about $70 million today).

*  *  *

The famous 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson had been holding a series of revival meetings in New York, which were often (and derisively) noted by the New Yorker editors. In the previous issue “Talk of the Town” observed:

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And in the March 12 issue they offered this parting note in “Of All Things”….

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Aimee Semple McPherson (left) leading a service at her Angelus Temple in Los Angeles in the 1920s.

A pioneer in the use of modern media, McPherson was in New York on a “vindication tour,” taking advantage of the publicity from her alleged kidnapping  a year earlier that led to investigations that she had staged her disappearance to bolster her flagging ministry.

In other diversions, bicycle racing had come to Madison Square Garden, as noted in “Talk of the Town” with an illustration by Reginald Marsh:

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click to enlarge

Advertisements in this issue included this announcement for the opening of the Park Central Hotel, still a grand landmark on 7th Avenue…

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…and this ad from Nestle touting the latest method for achieving success in the latest hair style…

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Next Time: Nothing Like the Roxy…

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Two Years Young

The New Yorker celebrated its 2nd anniversary by once again using the Rea Irvin cover from its first issue, which depicted a dandified character–soon to be dubbed “Eustace Tilley”–that would become a mascot of sorts for the magazine.

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February 19, 1927: 2nd anniversary issue cover by Rea Irvin.

For more than 90 years it has been a tradition to feature the original cover every year on the issue closest to the anniversary date of February 21, although on several occasions a newly drawn variation has been substituted, including several “alternative” covers for last year’s 90th anniversary issue. This one in particular, by Carter Goodrich, is appropriate for our times:

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The magazine included this embellishment on the opening page of “The Talk of the Town” (also repeated from the previous year)…

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…and the editors opened with a somewhat tongue-in-cheek boast of the young magazine’s improving fortunes:

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The boasts about advertising were legitimate. Apparently the people at Rolls Royce felt that the magazine was worth a full-page, weekly advertisement. Note the third paragraph of the ad, third to to the last line: How many car makers today, or any at time for that matter, would tout that their car “meets every traveling situation blandly?”

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While on the topic of ads, this one from the back pages caught my eye:

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Most of us have heard of vaudeville teams like the Marx Brothers and Laurel & Hardy, but there were many others who drew big audiences but are mostly forgotten today, including the trio of Clayton, Jackson and Durante.

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Jimmy Durante (center) performing with his vaudeville partners Eddie Jackson (right) and Lou Clayton. (New York Public Library)

Of the three, Jimmy Durante would go on to the greatest fame. Known for his gravelly voice, clever wordplay and his prominent nose (which he dubbed “the Schnozzola”), Durante would find great success in radio, film, and in early television. The singer, pianist and comedian would appear on many variety shows in the 1950s and 60s. Although he died in 1980, today he is still known to audiences young and old alike thanks to his appearance as the narrator in the animated Frosty the Snowman (1969), which is still broadcast every year during the Christmas season and is distributed through countless tapes and DVDs.

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GOOD NIGHT, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…the animated Jimmy Durante in Frosty the Snowman (1969), and in a 1964 publicity photo. (YouTube/Wikipedia)

*  *  *  *  *

On to more advertising, and less savory topic. Beginning in the 1920s, Lysol was advertised for use in feminine hygiene as a guard against “odors,” a term that was widely understood as a euphemism for contraception. According to Andrea Tone (Devices and Desires) by 1940 it had become the most popular birth control method in the country. Unfortunately for many women, Lysol contained cresol (derived from coal tar) which could cause severe inflammation and even death:

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Also popular (and a lot less harmful) in the 1920s was sheet music featuring the latest songs. So sidle up to the piano with your guy or gal and belt out one of these favorites:

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And to close, a cartoon by the famed Peter Arno, who was well-acquained with New York nightlife:

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Next Time: Clark’s Folly…

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Papa Pens a Parody

Ernest Hemingway wrote his lone New Yorker piece for the Feb. 5, 1927 issue. Titled “My Own Life,” it was a short parody of the 3-volume My Life and Loves by Irish writer Frank Harris.

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February 12, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

Writing for The Hemingway Review (Fall 2001), Francis Bosha notes in “The Harold Ross Files” that Hemingway’s sole contribution to the New Yorker is striking given that the magazine was such a major influence on fiction in the 20th century.

Money, or the shortage thereof, appears to be the main reason why Hemingway was not a regular contributor. Although the young magazine was doing well, Bosha writes that it was not yet ready to compete financially with more established mass market magazines. Indeed, Hemingway’s “My Own Life” landed in the New Yorker because it had already been rejected by both Scribner’s magazine and The New Republic.

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Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, in Paris, 1927. (Wikipedia)

If you read the piece you can see why it was rejected. The famed fiction writer, hot off the success of The Sun Also Rises, was not a great parodist. An excerpt:

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And so on. Hemingway wisely stuck with serious fiction, which might explain his fleeting  association with the New Yorker, which in its first years was bent toward humor in the Punch vein and not toward serious writing.

Nevertheless, the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, maintained a friendship and a regular correspondence with Hemingway during the writer’s years in Cuba in the 1940s. On several occasions Ross invited Hemingway to submit something to the magazine, but nothing came of it. It didn’t help that Hemingway publicly stated in 1942 that he “was out of business as a writer,” and was suffering from depression, weight gain, and bouts of heavy drinking.

The Great Ziegfeld Finally Opens His New Theatre

“The Talk of the Town” reported the premiere of Florenz Ziegfeld’s new art deco theatre was “one of the big mob scenes of the season,” attracting celebrities and celebrity-gawkers alike:

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Opening Night…

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DECKED IN DECO…The Ziegfeld Theatre at Sixth Avenue and 54th Street, 1927. Joseph Urban’s design of the facade suggests open curtains flanking a stage. (nyc-architecture.com)
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HELLO DOLLY…On the Ziegfeld Theatre’s opening night Ada May played Dolly in Rio Rita (Museum of the City of New York)

The opening drew the likes of Charlie Chaplin and polar explorer Roald Amundsen, who perhaps found a line of chorus girls a welcome sight after years of trekking through frozen landscapes.

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Among the attractions of the new theatre was what was claimed to be the largest oil painting in the world:

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LOTS TO LOOK AT…A section of the interior wall of the Ziegfeld Theatre, decorated with “the largest oil painting in the world.” (nyc-architecture.com)

Sadly, despite public protests, the theatre was razed in 1966, bulldozed into rubble. The Burlington House stands on the site today:

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Burlington House. (Wikipedia)

But we will end on a happier note, a cartoon by Barbara Shermund:

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Next Time: Two Years Young…

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All That Jazz

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” editors were always in search of something to amuse, and in the Jan. 29, 1927 issue they found it in one Maurine Watkins, who wrote the Broadway hit musical Chicago (yes, THAT one) while still enrolled in her drama class at Yale:

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Maurine Watkins (Chicago Tribune)

Watkins transformed a brief career as a Chicago Tribune crime reporter into her Broadway success, thanks to her fondness for writing about murderers:

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Chicago opened on Broadway in late December 1926 at the Sam Harris Theatre, where it ran for 172 performances. Watkins wrote the play as “homework” for her Yale drama class:

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It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, with Cecil B. DeMille producing a silent film version (directed by Frank Urson) in 1927.

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Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart from the 1927 film, Chicago. Ginger Rogers would play the role in the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, and Renée Zellweger would play the part in the 2002 film, Chicago. (chicagology)

Watkins would go on to write about 20 plays, moving on to Hollywood to write screenplays including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady. She left Hollywood in the 1940s to be close to her parents in Florida. A lifelong Christian, Watkins spent much of her fortune funding the study of Greek and the Bible at some 20 universities, including Princeton. Following her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Chicago to famed choreographer and director Bob Fosse. Fosse would go on to develop Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville in 1975, which was revived in 1997 and turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002.

*   *   *

Winter doldrums had set into city, which was digging out of the latest snowstorm and leaving the “Talk” editors pining for spring.

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January 29, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

So it was unwelcome news that the green lawns along Cottage Row were to become the latest casualties of the booming city:

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According to the excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan, around 1848 William Rhinelander filled the 7th Avenue block between 12th and 13th Streets with eleven three-story homes above “English basements.” The simple residences were intended for middle-class families and sat more than twenty feet back from the street, providing grassy lawns and garden space. During summer weather each floor had a deep veranda that provided shade and caught cooling breezes.

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This 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbot shows the abandoned “Cottage Row.” (Library of Congress)

As it turned out, the green lawns won a brief reprieve: By the time developers got around to building an apartment on the site, the Depression hit and left Cottage Row standing for another ten years. It was demolished in 1937, replaced not by an apartment building but rather by a gas station and used car lot, which were replaced in 1964 by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex):

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Today the Cottage Row site is occupied by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex). Albert C. Ledner, a New Orleans architect, fancifully evoked seafaring themes in his design of the Curran Building, which originally housed the headquarters of the National Maritime Union. (MCD Magazine)

* * *

The winter drear was further compounded by the sooty smog that lingered over the city, fed by so many coal-fired furnaces. The “Talk” editors noted:

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A PERENNIAL NUISANCE…This Al Frueh drawing originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 1926 issue of the magazine.

To read more about “soft coal days,” see my previous post, “A Fine Mess.”

* * *

Elsewhere in the magazine, the New Yorker featured this ditty by P.G. Wodehouse:

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Columnist Lois Long (“Tables for Two”) was contemplating dance lessons to learn the “Black Bottom,” the dance craze that supplanted “The Charleston” in 1926.

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Apparently the dance called for special shoes, per this advertisement from the same issue:

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Up to now I’ve been posting images of often lavish ads featured mostly in the first sections of the magazine and on the front and back inside covers, but there were other, less expensive (and less artful) ads sprinkled in the back pages of the magazine, a tradition that continues to this day:

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Next time: Spring Fever…

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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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Bad Hootch

Despite Prohibition, perhaps a few champagne corks were popped for the January 15, 1927, edition of the New Yorker. This is Issue # 100.

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January 15, 1927–Issue # 100. The cover art by Constantin Alajalov.

Prohibition was on the minds of the editors of the issue, which featured a highly critical piece by Morris Markey (“A Reporter at Large”) on the hysteria surrounding the government’s attempt to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol. The editors of “The Talk of the Town” also made this observation:

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Before we get more into Markey’s piece, a little background is in order. In an article for Time magazine (Jan. 14, 2015) Lily Rothman writes that for years prior to Prohibition industrial alcohol had been “denatured” by adding toxic or unappetizing chemicals to it. This was done so folks couldn’t escape beverage taxes by drinking commercial-use alcohol instead — but it was still possible to re-purify the liquid so that it could be consumed.

HOME CHEMISTRY…A bootlegger at work in the 1920s. (oldmagazinearticles.com)

Rothman cites a Time article from Jan. 10, 1927, which reported that Prohibition forces in the government were introducing a new formula that year for denaturing industrial-grade alcohol that doubled the poisonous content: “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol.” The article noted that “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.”

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Warning label from the 1920s (vickyloebel.com)

Although some opposed the practice as legalized murder, Rothman cites Seymour M. Lowman, who as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (1927-33) was in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Lowman told citizens that those on the fringes of society who continued to drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

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DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK…1920s label for bootleg moonshine. (googleuk)

Thousands died from consuming poisoned alcohol. Rothman writes that 33 people died in Manhattan alone in a three-day period in 1928, mostly from drinking wood alcohol.

Markey’s stance in his New Yorker article is somewhat unique, if not cold-hearted. Instead of taking the government to task for the practice, he assured his well-heeled readers that they had nothing to fear as long as they procured their alcohol from reputable bootleggers at top prices. Markey seemed to care not at all for the poor “slum-dwellers” who died from consuming the cheap stuff:

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If anything, Markey’s sympathies seemed to lie with those who had to drink the safe, albeit diluted hootch. He explained how four bottles of bootleg Scotch could be fashioned from a single bottle of the real deal:

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And if you had money, there was no need to fear death from drink…

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…that is, unless you were careless:

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* * *

Helena Huntington Smith wrote a profile on the actor Adolphe Menjou, described by IMDB as Hollywood’s epitome of suave and debonair style: “Known for his knavish, continental charm and sartorial opulence, Menjou, complete with trademark waxy black mustache, evolved into one of Hollywood’s most distinguished of artists and fashion plates, a tailor-made scene-stealer.” Interestingly, Menjou was born in Pittsburgh, and not in France as many a fan assumed (his father, however, was a French émigré).

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Glass lantern advertising slide for Menjou’s 1927 silent film A Gentleman of Paris.

In other items, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) once again set his sights on the city’s changing skyline. He began with the new General Motors building at Columbus Circle:

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He was thrilled by the push-button automation of the building’s elevators:

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The General Motors building, left, as it originally appeared on Columbus Circle. It was designed by Shreve & Lamb, who would soon go on to design the Empire State Building. At right, the building became known as the Newsweek Building. (Drawing by J. W. Golinkin in Towers of Manhattan, 1928, and photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

If George Chappell thought the General Motors building had some issues in 1927, he should see it today, wrapped in tacky reflecting glass and renamed 3 Columbus Circle:

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WHY? WHY ON EARTH?

Elsewhere, Chappell was agog at Sloan & Robertson’s massive Graybar Building:

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Sloan & Robertson’s Graybar Building at 420 Lexington. (history.graybar.com)

And to close, this ad on the back page for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the company’s famous Atlantic City sign. Note the point of pride: There are 13,000 lamps in the sign, but four times that many Chesterfields are smoked every minute…koff…koff…

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Next Time…Upstairs, Downstairs…

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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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Living High in ’27

It’s 1927 and the New Yorker is almost two years old. After a shaky start the magazine found its voice (and a lot of advertising revenue) and moved forward with a solid stable of contributors that would give the magazine a style that persists to this day.

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Jan. 1, 1927 cover by Rea Irvin.

Before I dive in, let’s get a snapshot of the country in 1927, courtesy of Bill Bryson’s excellent book, One Summer: America, 1927.

Bryson describes America as “staggeringly well-off in 1927,” with homes (especially in urban areas) shining with sleek appliances—refrigerators, radios, telephones, electric fans and razors—“that would not become standard in other countries for a generation or more.”

He writes that “of the nation’s 26.8 million households, 11 million had a phonograph, 10 million had a car, 17.5 million had a phone…42 percent of all that was produced in the world was produced in the United States.” Bryson also notes that in 1927 the U.S. made 80 percent of the world’s movies and 85 percent of the world’s cars, and that the state of Kansas alone had more cars than France.

It was also the year Babe Ruth would hit a record 60 home runs, and Charles Lindbergh would fly the Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.

* * *

The Jan. 1 issue featured a profile of world-famous dancer Isadora Duncan, who was living in sad decline in Paris. Particularly acclaimed in Europe for her free dance style, the California-born Duncan also gained notoriety (mostly in puritanical America) for her flouting of traditional mores and morality. Today, she is mostly known for the freak accident that killed her. More on that below.

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“Profiles” illustration of Isadora Duncan by Hugo Gellert.

The profile, written by Paris correspondent Janet “Gênet” Flanner under the pen name “Hippolyta,” noted that Duncan was “the last of the trilogy of great female personalities our century produced. Two of them, Duse and Bernhardt, have gone to their elaborate national tombs. Only Isadora Duncan, the youngest, the American, remains wandering the European earth.”

WANDERING THE EARTH…At left, portrait of Isadora Duncan, circa 1910. At right, a 1904 photograph Photograph by Hof-Atelier Elvira shows Duncan in her favored costume, which was inspired by classical drapery. The look was considered shocking at the time for the way it showed off her legs. (Wikipedia/New York Public Library)

Little did Flanner know that Duncan would also be dead before the year was over. Here is how the Wikipedia entry on Duncan describes her death:

On the night of September 14, 1927 in Nice, France, Duncan was a passenger in an Amilcar automobile owned by Benoît Falchetto, a French-Italian mechanic. She wore a long, flowing, hand-painted silk scarf, a gift from her friend Mary Desti, the mother of American film director Preston Sturges. Desti, who saw Duncan off, had asked Duncan to wear a cape in the open-air vehicle because of the cold weather, but Duncan would only agree to wear the scarf.

As they departed, Duncan reportedly said to Desti and some companions, “Adieu, mes amis. Je vais à la gloire!” (“Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”); but according to American novelist Glenway Wescott, Desti later told him that Duncan’s actual last words were, “Je vais à l’amour” (“I am off to love”). Desti considered this embarrassing, as it suggested that she and Falchetto were going to her hotel for a tryst.

Her silk scarf, draped around her neck, became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle, hurling her from the open car and breaking her neck. Desti said she called out to warn Duncan about the shawl almost immediately after the car left.

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NO SEAT BELTS, EITHER…A 1927 Italian Amilcar, similar to the one in which Duncan met her end. (irrational geographic)

Referring to Duncan’s demise, the writer Gertrude Stein remarked: “Affectations can be dangerous.”

Next Time: Those Jaunty Jalopies…

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Race Matters

Ben Hecht was a well-known screenwriter, director, producer, playwright (notably, The Front Page) and journalist who contributed a number of comic essays to The New Yorker, including “The Caliph Complex” featured on Page 30 of the Dec. 4, 1926 issue.

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December 4, 1926 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

The magazine consistently rejected “uptown slumming” by New Yorkers seeking exotic thrills in Harlem nightclubs (see my recent post on nightlife correspondent Lois Long’s ho-hum attitude toward the Cotton Club), and Ben Hecht was no exception to this stance.

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A drawing by Julian De Miskey that accompanied Hecht’s article.

In her book Defining New Yorker Humor, Judith Yaross Lee suggests that Hecht’s criticism of “slummers” was not an act of political liberalism, but rather was in line with the magazine’s habit of poking fun at the faddish. Hence the opening lines of Hecht’s essay:

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As I’ve previously noted, for all its sophistication The New Yorker of the 1920s was decidedly mainstream in treating blacks as racial “others.”

Lee notes that only a few illustrations in the magazine’s first five years depicted Asians, and the servant class was mostly represented by European types (butlers with a Jeeves-like air, or comely chamber-maids).

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Ben Hecht

When it came to depictions of black and brown faces, Lee notes that the magazine featured “conventional” types of the day–minstrel figures in blackface (see illustration above) or exotic African dancers.

When blacks were depicted as servants, they were rendered as “mammies,” such as in this cartoon by Reginald Marsh in the Dec. 4 issue:

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On the facing page, Peter Arno offered a depiction of a servant more typical for the magazine:

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But lest we feel smug in looking down at our literary forebears, the current discourse in our country seems to indicate that we still have a long way to go on issues of race.

Although there is much to dislike about The New Yorker’s views on race 90 years ago, its criticism of faddish “slumming” did call into question 1920s notions of race. Lee notes that the cartoon by Reginald Marsh (above) is actually a sneer aimed at the white woman for her patronizing comment. She represented the “fashionable Afrophilia” that Hecht and his fellow New Yorker writers detested.

“The Caliph Complex,” according to Lee, “suggested that The New Yorker did not so much ignore Africanist movements as suspect their white supporters.” The following October, Dorothy Parker would pen the essay “Arrangement in Black and White”–the story of a party in honor of a famous gospel singer–that would echo Hecht’s attack on false liberalism.

Next Time: What Price Glory…

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