Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

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.

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Oct. 9, 1926 cover by Julien deMiskey.

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.

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First edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos, illustrated by Ralph Barton (Wikipedia)
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Edward Steichen portrait of Anita Loos, 1926. The New Yorker would feature a lengthy, admiring “Profile” of Loos in its Nov. 6, 1926 issue.(Minneapolis Institute of Art)

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.

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Gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee (June Walker, second from left), Henry Spofford (Frank Morgan, second from right), and the rest of the cast tussle in the stage production Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Times Square Theatre, 1926. Another “blonde,” Marilyn Monroe, would famously portray Lorelei Lee in the 1953 Howard Hawks film. (New York Public Library)

Ralph Barton contributed this drawing of June Walker for the magazine’s review:

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And a bit of the review itself…

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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:

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JUST HAVING A LITTLE FUN…According to the blog Ephemeral New York, Texas Guinan’s 300 Club at 151 West 54th Street hosted the likes of John Barrymore, George Gershwin, and Clara Bow. The club was targeted by prohibition officials, who were constantly padlocking the door and arresting Texas. Guinan’s clever rejoinder to the officials: The 300 Club’s patrons brought liquor with them, and because the place was so small, the showgirls were forced to dance close to customers. (Ephemeral New York)

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.”

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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:

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(Photo by David Ochsner)

Next Time: The Changing Skyline…

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The Lights of Broadway

The lights of Broadway dazzled the editors of “The Talk of Town,” who commented on the changing displays that brightened The Great White Way.

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Cover of August 7, 1926 issue by Stanley W. Reynolds.

Broadway hit its prime in the 1920s, when many old buildings originally used for housing or commercial interests became more valuable as places to hang brightly lit signs.

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Broadway in the 1920s (emaze)

The “Talk” editors were more or less impressed by the displays. Despite their garishness, the Broadway lights were also a symbol of the youthful exuberance of Roaring Twenties New York:

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Daytime view of Times Square in the 1920s (tumblr)

The “Talk” editors sang the praises of the “aortic” Grand Central Station, which they dubbed a place of both dignity and efficiency that sorts a “surprisingly cheerful stream” of travelers with a certain rhythm, set in motion by an impassive gateman:

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The main concourse at Grand Central Terminal, 1929. (New York Transit Museum)

The Talk writers also added this lyrical observation of the traveling masses:

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Talk also noted the recent travels of Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr., who was an apparent heir to the Vanderbilt fortune until he shunned high society and was disinherited by his parents for becoming a journalist and newspaper publisher. The Talk segment noted that Vanderbilt had returned from travels in Europe, where among other things until he rubbed elbows the Italian dictator Mussolini and observed the curious habits of people under his fascist rule:

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Italian Premier Benito Mussolini (before he started wearing the fascist uniform) leaving for Tripoli on May 13, 1926. His nose was bandaged after an assassination attempt on April 26 by a British woman, Violet Gibson, who shot him with a revolver at close range. She was ruled insane and deported to England (strangehistory.net))

Next Time: Talking Pictures…

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Black Bottom & Other Scandals

The Roaring Twenties were all about fads and crazes, ranging from flagpole sitting to dances such as “The Shimmy,” “The Charleston,” or “The Black Bottom.” These dances were appropriated from Black culture, with many New Yorkers getting their first exposure in places such as Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.

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June 26, 1926 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The June 26, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was all abuzz over the Broadway debut of George White’s eighth annual Scandals. The Scandals were a long-running string of Broadway revues that ran from 1919-1939. Modelled after the Ziegfeld Follies, the Scandals launched the careers of many entertainers, including W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Rudy Vallée and Louise Brooks. Composer George Gershwin’s early work also appeared in the earliest editions of the show.

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Actress Louise Brooks got her start in the Scandals and later the Ziegfeld Follies. Here she portrays the “Duchess of Sidebottom” in George White’s Scandals of 1924. By 1925 Brooks would have a movie contract with Paramount, and go on to become a popular star of the late silent era and gain fame as the iconic symbol of the flapper. (flickr)

Like Flo Ziegfeld, George White must have been a master at marketing, since tickets for the Scandals opening sold for $55, which today would be the equivalent of about $725:

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The editors of “The Talk of the Town” were a bit skeptical of all the hype:

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The 1926 Scandals show featured “The Black Bottom,” danced by Ziegfeld Follies star Ann Pennington and Tom Patricola. In this dance-crazed era, “The Black Bottom” became a national phenomenon and even surpassed “The Charleston” in popularity.

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Tom Patricola & Ann Pennington dance “The Black Bottom” in 1926 as Scandals producer George White looks on (Wikipedia)
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Ann Pennington “teaching” Felix the Cat how to dance “The Black Bottom.” Image scan from Photoplay magazine spread, January 1927.

“The Black Bottom” was popularized in New York by the 1924 Harlem stage show show Dinaah. Although the dance moves originated in New Orleans in the early 20th century, Jelly Roll Morton gave it a name when he wrote Black Bottom Stomp in 1925, referring to Detroit’s Black Bottom district.

In typical fashion, The New Yorker was less than impressed with the spectacle. In his theatre review column, Charles Brackett made this observation:

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On to other things, “The Talk of the Town” also featured this curious note about George Custer’s widow, reminding us that 1926 was a very long time ago. Here are excerpts:

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Elizabeth Bacon Custer in 1876, the year of the Battle at Little Bighorn (Nebraska State Historical Society)

The New Yorker editors continued to remark on the changing face of Fifth Avenue…

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…and on the progress of the city’s infrastructure improvements, as in this excerpt from a humorous piece by the Robert Benchley:

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New York Governor Al Smith and New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore shake hands at the state border inside the Holland Tunnel in 1926. (NY Daily News)

Next Time: Wild & Woolly…

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What to Drink During Prohibition

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.

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May 29, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

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):

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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:

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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:

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“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:”

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Aldous Huxley in the 1920s. (Biography.com)

Other odds and ends from this issue…a clever drawing by Al Frueh for the “Profile” feature on New York Governor Al Smith:

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I include a photo of Al Smith for comparison:

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New York Gov. Al Smith (NY Daily News)

And this bit from “Of All Things,” complete with bad pun/racial slur:

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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:

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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.

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And finally, a nod to springtime, and this excerpt of an illustration by Helen Hokinson for the “Talk” section:

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Next Time: After a Fashion…

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