The Final Curtain

Nearly a century after his passing, many still regard Florenz Ziegfeld Jr as the most important and influential producer of Broadway musicals. His theatrical revues, filled with leggy chorines and wisecracking comics, set a standard for everything from Busby Berkeley productions to the Fats Waller stage celebration Ain’t Misbehavin’.

March 19, 1932 cover by Madeline S. Pereny, who gave us a glimpse of the annual International Flower Show at Grand Central Palace.

But when Robert Benchley checked out Ziegfeld’s latest revue, Hot-Cha, which opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre on March 8, 1932, he found it tiresome, and no amount of expensive scenery could keep the show from ending on a “particularly sickening thud.” What Benchley couldn’t know, however, was that Hot-Cha would be the last original musical-comedy produced by Ziegfeld, who in just four months would punch his last ticket.

NOT SO HOT-CHA!…Florenz Ziegfeld’s final revue brought out the stars, but it wasn’t enough to dazzle drama critic Robert Benchley. Clockwise, from top left, program for the revue; Lupe Velez, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, and June Knight in Hot-Cha; Benchley was more critical of Bert Lahr’s material than of the comedian himself — many years later Lahr’s son, John Lahr, would follow in Benchley’s footsteps and serve as the New Yorker’s drama critic; Frank Veloz and Yolanda Casazza were among the highest-paid dance acts in the 1930s and 40s, but Benchley had simply lost his appetite for yet another tango. (playbill.com/Pinterest/Smithsonian/Wikimedia)

Selections from the Ziegfeld Theatre program promised a stageful of talents, including 75 “Glorified Girls”…

…and Ziegfeld (1867–1932) would be back in May for a revival of Show Boat, which once again proved to be a hit, but a bout of pleurisy would claim his life on July 22, 1932. As Benchley alluded in his review, these lavish shows led to equally lavish expenses, and Ziegfeld, having lost much of his money in the stock market crash, would leave his actress wife Billy Burke with substantial debts. The plucky Burke, however, marched on with a successful acting career that included her appearance as Glinda the Good Witch in 1939’s Wizard of Oz.

SECOND ACT…Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. and his wife, actress Billie Burke, pose for an Edward Steichen photo, 1927. At right, Burke as Glinda the Good Witch in 1939’s Wizard of Oz.

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Everyone’s a Critic

The March 19 issue also featured drama criticism from Alexander Woollcott in his “Shouts and Murmurs” column. In this case, Woollcott had a bone to pick with the famed playwright Eugene O’Neill, as well as with Guild Theatre’s coughing patrons, who called to mind a chorus of frogs:

SHSSS!…Alexander Woollcott would have preferred an empty Guild Theatre to one filled with “bronchial” patrons. (goodreads.com)

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Down in Old Mexico

The New Yorker’s latest “Out of Town” feature assured travelers that Mexico was a safe destination, and advised men to pack “spring suits and a dinner jacket” if they planned to visit Mexico City. The author of this piece (signed “P.L.”) cautioned travelers “to get insulated against liquid lightning before getting flip with the national drinks: pulque and tequila. Bootleg liquor is no preparation for the havoc these work even on the sternest drinker.”

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Sweating With the Stars

The March 19 “A Reporter at Large” column carried the simple title “Exercise.” Written by journalist Russell Lord* (1895-1964), this excerpt revealed some high-powered clients of one of the world’s first celebrity trainers:

GUY LOMBARDO’S DOOR IS ON THE LEFT…Izzy Winter’s health and exercise “institute” was tucked away on the second floor of the Roosevelt Hotel. Patrons passed through the hotel’s lobby to access an “honest sweat.” Izzy is pictured at right. (Roosevelt Hotel/Yale University)

In Lord’s conclusion, he noted that after a workout patrons were treated to a doze under a sunlamp and a cigarette…

* In his day, Russell Lord was a noted agricultural writer and editor of the agricultural literary journal The Land, which promoted ecologically responsible agricultural practices.

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Fame and Infamy

I include this snippet from John Mosher’s film column to note the first reference in the New Yorker to the March 1, 1932 kidnapping of the baby of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh…the lives and various doings of the Lindberghs were frequent subjects in the early days of the magazine…

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From Our Advertisers

We’ll start by sampling some of the wares in the back pages…looks like Ziegfeld got a big bang for his small investment with his Hot-Cha ad…

…while Ziegfeld ran a cheap ad for his lavish production, the R.F. Simmons Company decided to go big with this ad for…drum roll please…watch chains…

…the makers of Cliquot Club Ginger Ale also did their best to promote a mundane product, claiming their beverage had a “piquant personality”…yeah, especially with a splash or two of some bootleg whisky…

…the makers of Spuds were staying with their stupid “Mouth-Happy” theme, assuring menthol cigarette smokers they will be the life the party…a party filled with old gasbags, that is…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to push their Camels on the growing market of women smokers, demonstrating the effects of a fresh cigarette with this image of a rosy-cheeked nurse…

…DeSoto (a division of Chrysler) gave Depression-era readers something to smile about with this full-color, two-page advertisement featuring a sunny beach scene and an affordable automobile…

…on to our cartoons, here’s Carl Rose’s perspective on the Disarmament Conference taking place in Geneva, Switzerland…

…while the Otto Soglow’s Little King had his own way of projecting power…

…on the domestic scene, Barbara Shermund’s modern women were channeling  René Descartes

…and William Steig showed us a couple debating an equally weighty matter…

…and via Richard Decker, some well-groomed polar explorers…

…two of Helen Hokinson’s “girls” stopped by the International Flower Show at Grand Central Palace…

…and we end with another classic from James Thurber

Next Time: Dirge for a Dirigible…

The Milne Menace

Dorothy Parker was no fan of A. A. Milne of “Winnie-the-Pooh” fame, and neither was her dear friend Robert Benchley, the latter having had the misfortune of reviewing Milne’s latest Broadway play, They Don’t Mean Any Harm, which opened on Feb. 23, 1932, and closed (mercifully, one gathers) after one week.

March 5, 1932 cover by Leo Rachow commemorated the US Vs. Canada hockey match at the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, NY. Canada won its fourth consecutive Olympic gold by narrowly edging the US (silver) in total points.

Parker, as readers may recall, famously ridiculed Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner in the New Yorker, beginning with a quote from the book: “‘Well, you’ll see, Piglet, when you listen. Because this is how it begins. The more it snows, tiddely-pom’ – ‘Tiddely what’ said Piglet. ‘Pom,’ said Pooh. ‘I put that to make it more hummy.’ And it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that marks the first place in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader Fwowed up” (Parker wrote her book reviews under the pseudonym “Constant Reader”).

As for Benchley, he fondly recalled Milne’s earlier work, when he wrote silly verse and essays in the British humor magazine Punch, but apparently Milne’s downfall began when he published some “Pooh” poetry in the Feb. 13, 1924 issue…

WELL, DISNEY LIKED IT…A. A. Milne (1882 – 1956) pictured in his younger days (inset) joined the humor magazine Punch in 1906 and served as its assistant editor. After his son was born in 1920, he compiled a collection of poems for children, When We Were Very Young, illustrated by Punch cartoonist E. H. Shepard. An excerpt from the Feb. 13, 1924 issue appears above.  (Pinterest)

Parker, of course, did not think much of Milne as a children’s author, and Benchley also found him wanting (more than once) as a playwright. Here is the first part of Benchley’s scathing review of They Don’t Mean Any Harm, which was presented at the Charles Hopkins Theatre on 49th Street.

…Benchley’s evisceration continues on the left column…

NO ACTORS WERE HARMED IN THE MAKING OF THIS PLAY…They Don’t Mean Any Harm closed after just a week (15 performances), but it would give rising young star Marion Burns (top left) her debut on a New York stage. Also appearing was veteran actor O.P. Heggie, who had to dial up the schmaltz to play a character so sweet (the role of Mr. Tilling, a humble, poor book agent) that it achieved just the opposite effect for critic Robert Benchley, who wrote he had never seen “a fouler character than Mr. Tilling”; pictured at bottom, A. A. Milne circa 1920s, and the cover of the program. (imdv.com/RKO Radio Pictures/Wikipedia/Playbill)

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Meanwhile, Beneath the City…

Eric Hodgins (author of the popular novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House) filed a two-part feature on the New York subway system, marveling at the complexities of a transportation network that daily served millions while under constant development. Excerpts:

IN THE NAME OF PROGRESS…Today’s sandhogs (tunnel diggers) work in much safer conditions than in the 1930s, but some of the technology described in Eric Hodgin’s article was still around in 2015 (see below). Top photos, left, sandhogs tightening a bolt on a tunnel connection; right, subway tunnelers who worked under the East River are shown in a decompression chamber. Bottom photos, left, city officials in 1933 showing off a ventilation system installed to cool down trains (but air-conditioning was still decades away); and right, a 1938 Walker Evans photo from his subway series. (Daily News/public delivery.org/ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Six years ago Business Insider described the “100-year-old technology” still used by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and you can see that in 2015 (bottom photo) the switches and control panels were similar to ones in the 1930s (top photo). Also note the old handset (possibly bakelite) at left center of the 2015 photo.

(businessinsider.com)

I am not including these images to ridicule the MTA, but rather to admire the hard work, technological prowess and creativity of our forebears. Improving these vast, complex systems takes time and money, and especially money, lots of it.

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Coming Up For Air

Stuffy, crowded subway cars were largely unknown to those New Yorkers who still had means in the 1930s, and who could escape the city’s late winter doldrums and flee to sunny Bermuda. The “Out of Town” column offered some travel tips:

WISH YOU WEREN’T HERE…These fortunate New Yorkers enjoyed Bermuda’s sunny climes in 1932. (New York Historical Society)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with advertisement for the lovely Hotel Pierre, still a landmark of luxury in Manhattan. In 1932, however, the Depression forced the new hotel (opened in 1930) into bankruptcy. And so, we read this ad with tinge of sadness for Charles Pierre and his short-lived dream…

…one thing the Depression didn’t destroy was the need to shave one’s whiskers, and this is the first time (at least that I have noticed) that Burma Shave referenced its famous roadside jingles in a New Yorker ad…

…the concept of being “mouth-happy” was the tagline used by the makers of Spud menthol cigarettes, who encouraged smokers to light up even before they got out of their PJs…

…Lucky Strike, meanwhile, stuck with their “toasted” claims, and to images of fame, youth and beauty to suggest that your looks as well as your throat would benefit from their product…

…the woman in the Lucky ad, June Collyer (1906-1968), was one of 13 women selected as “WAMPAS Baby Stars” in 1928. During the 1920s and early 30s, the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) honored 13 or so young actresses each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom (In the 1940s Collyer’s brother “Bud” Collyer provided the voice of Superman on the radio). While I digress, here is a photo of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1932:

WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1932. Back row: Toshia Mori, Boots Mallory, Ruth Hall, Gloria Stuart, Patricia Ellis, Ginger Rogers, Lilian Bond, Evalyn Knapp, Marian Shockley. Seated in front row: Dorothy Wilson, Mary Carlisle, Lona Andre, Eleanor Holm and Dorothy Layton (June Clyde is not pictured).

…on to our cartoons, we go from the glamorous to the everyday with William Steig

…and Garrett Price

Richard Decker suggested someone might be in for a bumpy ride…

…and Decker again, illustrating the perils of another form of transportation…

Barbara Shermund gave us a wealthy matron eager for show and tell…

…and Peter Arno looked in on one of his ancient walruses, pining for the olden days…

…on to the March 12, 1932 issue…

March 12, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

…and some insights into a variety of world events, large and small, by E.B. White:

GR-R-ATE was the word used by one newsreel announcer to describe Malcolm Campbell’s land speed record of 253.96 miles per hour, achieved on the sands of Florida’s Daytona Beach on Feb. 24, 1932. E.B. White wanted to know why this achievement was so gr-r-ate. (floridamemory.com)

And we have White again, who we all know loved dogs, and especially Daisy, his beloved Scotty. When she was killed by a swerving taxicab, he wrote a beautiful remembrance in the New Yorker. Here are the first and last paragraphs.

TRAVELING COMPANION…Katharine White with Daisy on a leash in New York City, 1931. In the pram is baby Joel. (brainpickings.org)

One more by White, this time admiring the heavenly beauty of a GE refrigerator in the window of a Rex Cole store on East 21st Street:

KING OF COLD…The Eagle Building (right) on East 21st held the Rex Cole showroom admired by E.B. White. To get some idea of Rex Cole’s theatrical fridge displays, the image at left is of a Bronx storefront. (MCNY/Daytonian in Manhattan)

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From Our Advertisers

With the Depression still deepening, even the rich needed a break, so Lincoln rolled out an eight-cylinder model, at $2,900 still too steep for most folks…

…and priced competitively with the Lincoln, the Chrysler Imperial Eight looked a lot more fun…

…and we have another stylish and very modern Coty advertisement by American fashion illustrator Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom…

…on to cartoons, Gluyas Williams demonstrated that sometimes words alone don’t have the same effect as a simple gesture…

dd

Garrett Price found a hapless fellow on a train to nowhere…

Helen Hokinson’s “girls” were going through the motions at a bridge tournament…

…and Helen again with the lives and loves of our youth…

…and we close with James Thurber, his war between the sexes taking a new twist…

Next Time: The Final Curtain…

All That Glitters Is Not Gold

We first encountered critic Lewis Mumford in the June 30, 1931 issue of the New Yorker when he roundly excoriated plans for Rockefeller Center. The Nov. 14 issue once again found him in a surly mood, this time regarding the decorative arts and how they had been poorly displayed at the otherwise esteemed Metropolitan Museum.

Nov. 14, 1931 cover by B.H. Jackson.

To say that Mumford was displeased with the Met’s decorative arts exhibition would be an understatement:

BED, BATH AND BEYOND…Let’s just say Lewis Mumford probably needed a stiff drink after strolling through the Met’s latest displays of the decorative arts. (Library of Congress)
PAST IMPERFECT…Norman Bel Geddes was known for his theatrical, futuristic visions of streamlined everything, but the radio he exhibited at the Met was more Queen Victoria’s speed in Mumford’s view. (Pinterest)

Mumford pondered this sudden decline: was it the Depression, or just a streak of bad taste? And what could be done with the purveyors of bad taste, short of shooting them? Let’s read on…

MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET…Mumford suggested that Macy’s International Exposition of Art in Industry in the late 1920’s had more vision than the Met’s 1931 offering. Above, living room furniture designed by Houbert et Petit exhibited in a showroom during the 1928 “International Exposition of Art in Industry” at Macy’s department store. (Library of Congress)
LESS THAN A PRETTY FACE?…The streamlined form of Norman Bel Geddes’ “House of Tomorrow” probably wowed a few readers of Ladies home Journal in April 1931, but critic Lewis Mumford was likely not among them, as he often criticized Bel Geddes for his theatricality at the expense of good taste and functionality (see first excerpt above). Mumford was especially critical of Bel Geddes’ glorification of the automobile and the highway at the expense of livable cities. (Pinterest)

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Peter, We Have Your Back

When your colleague has a play made from his book, and it closes after just seven performances, what can you say, especially if you are theater critic for the New Yorker? Well, here is what Robert Benchley did:

THAT’S SHOW BIZ…Here Goes The Bride, based on a Peter Arno book, closed after just seven performances. However, as a cartoonist, Arno was at the top of his game. (Britannica/Ebay)

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From Our Advertisers

Depression? Who needs it? If you had the means, and didn’t lose your shirt in the 1929 crash, you could get away from it all and book passage to the Bahamas, where you could drink legally, soak up some sun, and forget about those lengthening bread lines you occasionally glanced from the window of your town car…

…well, that bootleg gin was a mind eraser…

Helen Hokinson continued to offer her cartooning skills to the folks at Frigidaire…

…on to our cartoons, the George Washington Bridge drew the envy of some out-of-towners, as illustrated by Garrett Price

…nearly 90 years ago folks were almost as nuts about college football as they are now, except for Perry Barlow’s lone dowager, who would rather be sitting in her parlor with a cup of tea…

Gardner Rea explored the wonders of heredity…

Otto Soglow’s Little King employed a guard ready for any emergency…

Barbara Shermund gave us an artist with a god complex…

James Thurber continued to probe the nuances of the sexes…

Peter Arno sketched this two-page spread with the caption: J.G’s a card all right when he gets to New York

…and from the mouth of babes, we have these observations of the underworld from Chon Day

…and Denys Wortman

On to the Nov. 21 issue, which featured the last in a series of eleven covers Helen Hokinson contributed to the New Yorker in 1931. The covers featured one of Hokinson’s “Best Girls” — a plump, wealthy, society woman — on an around-the-world cruise, which began with the March 2 issue and ended on Nov. 21 with a stop at the customs office, and a nosy customs officer…

Nov. 21, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

Bread & Circuses

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White reported on a recent editorial in the Columbia Spectator, that university’s student newspaper, which took issue with the professionalization and “furtive hypocrisy” of college football (if only they could see us now). White observed:

In 1931, Columbia was a football power, and the Ivy League was a big-time conference. To the editors of the Spectator, this was not a point of pride, which they made clear in this 89-year-old editorial that could have been written yesterday:

Clippings from Columbia Spectator Archive
JUST GETTING MY KICKS…1931 press photo of Columbia University football star Ralph Hewitt, who still holds the school record for the longest field goal — a 53-yarder he dropped kicked in a 1930 upset victory over Cornell. Hewitt went on to coach high school sports.

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Sorry, Charlie

William “Billy” Haines was a popular actor during the 1920s and early 30s a top-five box-office star from 1928 to 1932, portraying arrogant but likable characters in a string of pictures that ended abruptly when Haines refused to deny his homosexuality and was cut loose by MGM. “The Talk of the Town” looked in on Haines at his Santa Barbara home, where he entertained a mysterious visitor:

THE INTERIOR LIFE…The stylish actor William Haines in a 1926 publicity shot taken at his Hollywood home. Haines would abandon acting in the 1930s and take up a successful career as an interior designer. (Photofest)

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Coveted Coiffeur

Speaking of stylish, writer Bessie Breuer wrote an admiring profile of Polish hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski), considered the world’s first celebrity hairdresser. The opening paragraph:

A CUT ABOVE…In 1914 famed hairdresser Antoine (aka Antoni Cierplikowski) invented the “shingle cut” (at left, sported by actress Louise Brooks in the 1920s), which was all the rage during the Roaring Twenties. (Pinterest)

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The Look of Relief

In “The Talk of the Town” E.B. White noted that a familiar face was gracing advertisements for President Herbert Hoover’s Unemployment Relief Agency:

I NEVER FORGET A FACE…E.B. White referred to this ad featuring an unnamed woman who had a familiar look about her. (period paper.com)

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More His Style

We return again to Lewis Mumford, this time cheered by the sight of the new Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, designed by Cory & Cory. An excerpt from “The Sky Line” column:

THAT’S MORE LIKE IT…Lewis Mumford praised the striking effect of the Starrett-Lehigh Building’s alternating bands of brick, concrete and steel. (Atlas of Places)

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The Chump

John Mosher was neither moved nor charmed by the appearance of little Jackie Cooper in The Champ, a tearjerker story of an alcoholic ex-boxer (Wallace Beery) struggling to provide for his son. He did, however, appreciate the boy’s ability to carry “on his little shoulders a heavy and tedious and lengthy story.”

BUMMER…John Mosher had little to like about King Vidor’s The Champ, featuring Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper. Mosher was no doubt a bit dismayed when Beery received an Academy Award for his performance. (IMDB)

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A Wishful Christmas List

It was that time of the year when the New Yorker began running its lengthy features on possible gifts for Christmas. This excerpt caught my eye for what might have been possible in 1931 — buying a photographic print directly from Berenice Abbott or Nickolas Muray:

NO LUMP OF COAL, THIS…In 1931 it might have been quite possible to buy this print directly from photographer Berenice Abbott. Barclay Street, Hoboken Ferry 1931, is in MoMA’s photography collection.

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From Our Advertisers

It has been well-established in previous posts that Anglophilia ran rampant among New York’s smart set, and this advertisement from Saks provides everything we need to underscore the point…

…and the top hat mades another appearance in this spot for Lucky Strike, featuring an endorsement from actor Edmund Lowe...

…our cartoons featured a song-less songbird courtesy of Perry Barlow

…and from James Thurber, another creature with little appetite for song, let alone wine and women…

William Steig brought us back to the bleachers with another nonconformist…

Gluyas Williams gave us this sad sack all alone in the crowd…

Richard Decker sought to bring order to this court…

…and we end with Carl Rose, and this two-page cartoon illustrating a dicey parking challenge…

Next Time: Yankee Doodles…

 

The Tragic Pose

In an age of toe-tapping musicals and screwball comedies — which served to distract from the grim realities of the Great Depression — one playwright was content to continue mining the deep veins of tragedy and pessimism than ran through the 1930s.

Nov. 7, 1931 cover by Margaret Schloeman.

A Chekhovian realistEugene O’Neill (1888 – 1953) had yet to write his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, but in 1931 he was already well established as America’s preeminent playwright. When his naturalistic Mourning Becomes Electra hit the Guild Theatre stage, New Yorker theatre critic Robert Benchley had little doubt about O’Neill’s greatness as a playwright, even if he wasn’t so sure about the play itself:

O’Neill’s tragic pose was borne from childhood, the son of an alcoholic father and a mother who became addicted to morphine after his difficult birth. His older brother, Jamie, would drink himself to death. It doesn’t end there. O’Neill’s own  two sons would commit suicide, and he would disown his remaining daughter, Oona O’Neill, when at age 18 she married silent film star Charlie Chaplin, 36 years her senior. An odd footnote: Chaplin was best friends with Ralph Barton, a cartoonist for the early New Yorker who took his own life after Eugene O’Neill married Barton’s ex, Carlotta Monterey. To close the loop, O’Neill and Monterey had a mess of a marriage between his alcoholism and her addiction to sedatives. No wonder the man rarely smiled.

WRONG MEDS, MY DEAR…Christine Mannon (Alla Nazimova) recoils from her husband, Ezra (Lee Baker) after giving him a poison that he mistakes for his heart medicine. At right, Christine and her daughter, Lavinia (Alice Brady), await the return of Ezra from battle. All three actors were part of the original cast of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, which was a retelling of Oresteia by Aeschylus. (allanazimova.com)
FAMILIAR FACE…Eugene O’Neill made his third appearance on the cover of Time magazine for the Nov. 2, 1931 issue. He made a total of four appearances on the magazine’s cover (1924, 1928, 1931 and 1946). At right, cover of Guild Theatre program. (Time/Pinterest)
SAY CHEESE…Eugene O’Neill wore his familiar scowl in this undated portrait with his third (and final) wife, stage and film actress Carlotta Monterey. (famousfix.com)

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Go West, William

When Mae West announced she was going to present a modern version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth and play the part of Lady Macbeth, Wolcott Gibbs went to work on possible scenarios for such a production. Here is one of them:

LADIES MACBETH?…Actually, only two of these women made the cut to play Lady Macbeth. Gladys Cooper (center) appeared as Lady Macbeth in a 1935 production at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre that lasted barely a month. The following year Edna Thomas (right) portrayed Lady Macbeth in a Federal Theatre Project production of Macbeth with an all-Black cast. Orson Welles adapted and directed the production, which was staged at Harlem’s Lafayette Theatre. It became a box office and critical sensation.

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Those Hats Again

And now to E.B. White, who once again explored the mysteries of the Empress hat:

TAKE THIS, MR. LIPPMANN…Thelma Todd wearing an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1932 comedy Speak Easily. (Wikipedia)

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Rah, Rah, Sis Boom Bah

And so, in a city with one of the most storied teams in Major League Baseball, the New Yorker continued to ignore that sport as it gushed over college football, John Tunis even going the extra mile to check out homecoming at Ohio State.

HOMECOMING ROYALTY…THE Ohio State football team went 6-3 in 1931, but they blanked Navy 20-0 in their homecoming game. (elevenwarriors.com)

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Boxing Brainiac

Several times before in this blog we have encountered boxing great Gene Tunney and his taste for the literary life. E.B. White gave us the latest on the Champ in “The Talk of the Town”…

THE FINER THINGS…Heavyweight Boxing Champion Gene Tunney, left, discusses things that don’t involve hitting people with writer George Bernard Shaw during a 1929 vacation to Brioni. (AP)

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From Our Advertisers

It’s the Depression, Prohibition is still in force (kind of), so what’s a body to do to blow off some steam? Well, you could take up smoking, every waking moment, at least when it came to this guy…

…and these were the days when tobacco companies offered competing claims about the health benefits of their cigarettes (weight loss, calmer nerves etc.). So the folks at Listerine, who were all about keeping you safe from nasty mouth germs, launched a cigarette of their own, which was “taking the country by storm,” at least in their estimation…

…and I throw this in to give you an idea of how far cigarette companies would go, and how folks would respond in the early 1930s…at left is a 1932 advertisement from the back cover of Popular Mechanics, telling us that “Everybody” is deeply inhaling their product…of course people became addicted, including this young woman (right) featured in a 1931 Popular Science news item who managed to smoke and read a book while reducing her figure…

…back to the New Yorker ads from the Nov. 7 issue, here is one that offered a “scientific” way to remove nicotine from cigarettes, allowing only “pure tobacco” to enter your pink lungs…

…and now a couple of lovely color ads for Houbigant cosmetics…

…and our friends at Alcoa, diligently working to convince Americans that aluminum furniture was the modern way to keep your house “in step” with the times…

…and finally, RCA Victor was offering an early version of the LP record, so you wouldn’t have to stop necking to turn the damn record…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Gardner Rea

…John Reehill gave us a lover who probably watched too many romance movies…

…contrasting with this fellow illustrated by Carl Rose, who doesn’t lift a finger to find some romance…

…and while we are on the subject of love, here is a modern twist offered by Barbara Shermund

William Crawford Galbraith gave us a far more detached view of the game of love…

…while Helen Hokinson found an attraction of a different sort with one of her “girls”…

Alan Dunn looked in on the baking business, industrial-sized…

…and we end with Richard Decker, and the price of war…

Next Time: All That Glitters Is Not Gold

The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

 *  *  *

And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

 *  *  *

The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (kathrynsreport.com)

 *  *  *

When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

 *  *  *

They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

 *  *  *

An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

 *  *  *

Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

 *  *  *

Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…

 

 

Bonfire of the Vanities

When Earl Carroll’s Vanities hit the Broadway revue scene in 1923, it faced strong competition from George White’s Scandals and the long-running Ziegfeld Follies. Carroll’s answer: More of everything.

Sept. 5, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

That included more nudity than the other revues. Critics, including the New Yorker’s Robert Benchley, found the nudity gratuitous, a titillating distraction from what was otherwise a mess of a show. It also landed Carroll in court from time to time on charges of public indecency. All of this, of course, was just more publicity to drive audiences to his theatre at 753 Seventh Avenue, which he built in 1922 and then partially tore down just nine years later to replace it with an even grander venue. This is where Benchley found himself on the evening of August 27 — at the grand opening of the Earl Carroll Theatre and the 1931 edition of the Vanities. Benchley found nothing grand about it:

AUTOGRAPHS, ANYONE?…Accompanied by his Vanities showgirls, Earl Carroll leaves the Essex Market Police Court on July 20,1930, after appearing to answer charges of public indecency. Police raided a Vanities matinee on July 9, arresting eleven including famed burlesque dancer Faith Bacon, who performed in nothing but fans made of ostrich feathers. No doubt police were tipped off by critics who called the 1930 edition the “nudest” cast in American theatre history. From the looks on their faces, it seems even the police enjoyed the spectacle. (Worthpoint)
IS THERE A PROBLEM, OFFICER?…Faith Bacon in a less-revealing pose with the ostrich-feather fans that brought the police ‘a calling. (fanpix.net)

Carroll’s ambitions were always big, whether it was the size or lavishness of his stage shows or the Art Deco theatre (designed by George W. Keister) he erected in 1931 in answer to Flo Ziegfeld’s 1927 Joseph Urban-designed theatre on Sixth Avenue. With 3,000 seats, Carroll’s theatre was nearly twice the size of Ziegfeld’s.

THEY DON’T COME FOR THE SCRIPTWRITING…Earl Carroll made it clear what audiences could expect in his 1931 Art Deco-style theatre, which featured black velvet-covered walls relieved with gold and silver-colored highlights. Its 3,000 seats made it one of the largest theatres in the world. Clockwise, from top left, portrait of Carroll (a gift from the 1930 Vanities showgirls) flanked by busts of Vanities girls Doris Andrese and Beryl Wallace in the theatre lobby; sign above theatre entrance; a two-page spread from the theatre’s “Beauty Souvenir” booklet; cover of the booklet, featuring singer Lillian Roth. (New York Historical Society).
DECO DRAMA…Clockwise, from top left, Earl Carroll circa 1925; ceiling detail inside the Earl Carroll Theatre; mezzanine lounge; the stage. (New York Historical Society).

The show itself left Benchley baffled, a mishmash of lights, colors, and effects including a drooling dinosaur that dropped a naked woman on stage for a dance number…

LAUNCH SITE….The Vanities stage helped launch the careers of many entertainers. Clockwise, from top left, undated photo of a Vanities production — some shows would feature more than 100 women on stage at one time; singer Lillian Roth was a star attraction; Vanities alumni included William Demarest (Uncle Charlie!), Jack Benny and Vincente Minnelli. (assumption.edu/flickr.com/classicmoviehub.com/amazon.com/sensesofcinema.com)

This wasn’t last word from the New Yorker on the new theatre; the Sept. 12 issue featured these observations by Creighton Peet:

In the end, Carroll’s ambitions were too big for the deepening Depression, and just six months after his theatre’s opening he would lose it to creditors. The property would be snapped up by rival Florenz Ziegfeld and renamed the Casino, but the Ziegfeld connection would be short-lived; Ziegfeld would die a few months later in July 1932. Later that year another rival, George White, would take over the venue to stage his Music Hall Varieties, which ended in 1933 with middling results. The theatre would go through several more tenants — including Billy Rose — until 1940 when the discount “dime store” Woolworth’s would move in, demolishing the lobby and walling off the remaining ceiling and walls. Woolworth’s would close the location in the late 1980s — the store, and the last remnants of the Earl Carroll Theatre, would be demolished in 1990.

CLOSING NUMBER…At left, a sneak peek behind the false walls of Woolworth’s in 1988 shows a detail of the theatre’s proscenium, ceiling and sidewall. At right, top to bottom, the second Earl Carroll Theatre at 7th Avenue & 50th Street; the Woolworth’s store that replaced it, circa 1980; the site today. (Large image from the book Lost Broadway Theatres, via drivingfordeco.com/Google Maps)

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From Our Advertisers

Fall is upon us, and so the social season begins, according to the Hotel St. Regis…

…and what better way to prepare for the season than to acquire a new mink coat…

…maybe politics and world affairs were more your bag, in which case you probably wanted to get a subscription to the Herald Tribune and read the latest from commentator Walter Lippmann

…the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, an upstart brand that initially targeted women, continued with their prize contests, but now they began courting men as well…

…on the other hand, the more established brand Chesterfield had the resources to run a color back-cover ad with endorsements from the brother-sister dance team Fred and Adele Astaire

…Fleishmann’s continued to run their full-page ads touting the wonders of daily yeast consumption (“Eat three cakes a day”). The ads were there because Raoul Fleishmann used his wealth from the family baking business to keep the New Yorker afloat during its fledgling years…

…Farrar and Rinehart announced the arrival of Otto Soglow’s first book, Pretty Pictures

…here is the cover of the book…

…and we move on to the cartoons with the character that would make Soglow rich and famous…The Little King

…although Fleischmann likely saved the New Yorker with large infusions of cash, its cartoonists, including Gardner Rea, still took an occasional poke at the company’s health claims…

…anticipating his “Small Fry” cartoons, William Steig finds two of them examining the wonders of human physiology…

Rea Irvin looked in on some stuffy Western Union censors…

…newcomer Robert Day illustrated the challenges of a doorman (Day would be a longtime contributor)…

Garrett Price found humor abuzz between the bold and the meek…

Alan Dunn tracked down a clueless hunter…

…and we end with Leonard Dove, who takes flight and anticipates our next installment…

Next Time: A Big Bird…

 

Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

*  *  *

Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

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On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

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The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

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Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

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From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley

Harold Ross founded the New Yorker as a sophisticated humor magazine, so when events in the city or the world took a serious turn, the writers and editors did their best to maintain its waggish tone.

May 16, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

After two cold-blooded killers engaged police in a heated gun battle from a West 91st Street rooming house, the May 16, 1931 “Talk of the Town” had this to say about the incident:

At right, a 1933 portrait of Portrait Of Edward Mulrooney, Police Commissioner of New York City, by Edward Steichen. (Conde Nast)

The New Yorker wasn’t alone in finding entertainment value in the gun battle. Safety standards were quite different in the 1930s, so as police exchanged heavy gunfire with 18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, a crowd of 15,000 bystanders surrounded the scene, some just yards away from the action as the photo below attests:

THEY NEEDED SOCIAL DISTANCING HERE…On May 7, 1931, Francis “Two Gun” Crowley exchanged gunfire with police for nearly two hours from the fifth floor of a rooming house on West 91st Street. A force of 300 police fired an estimated 700 rounds at Crowley’s apartment while a crowd of 15,000 spectators surrounded the scene. Not sure why the police stood in a huddled mass beneath the window of the shooter. Strength in numbers, perhaps. (ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com)

Another mention of the incident was in John Mosher’s film review column. He noted that the newsreel footage of the shoot-out was the best thing on the screen that week, and especially the moment when Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh emerged from the building in the clutches of the police:

DON’T GET TOO COMFORTABLE…18-year-old Francis “Two Gun” Crowley (left) surrendered to police after suffering four gunshot wounds in the West 91st Street shootout, but would recover in time to be executed two months after his 19th birthday. At right, images from the newsreel show Crowley accomplice Fats Durringer being led away from the scene, along with Crowley’s girlfriend (bottom right), 16-year-old Helen Walsh. (Everett/YouTube)

By the end of the month Crowley was tried and convicted of the murder of a police officer, and his partner Fats Durringer was found guilty of brutally killing a dance hall hostess. Justice moved swiftly in those days, especially when the murder of a police officer was involved: On June 1, 1931 — just three weeks after the shoot-out with police — Crowley and Durringer were sentenced to death. Only six months would pass before Durringer took a seat in Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley would follow his accomplice a few weeks later. As for Helen Walsh, she was released after testifying against Crowley and Durringer.

SHORT LIFE FOR SHORT KILLER…The diminutive Francis “Two Gun”Crowley, top, left, developed a habit of carrying more than one gun at all times, hence the nickname. At right, Crowley with officials at Sing Sing, where both he and partner Fats Durringer would meet their end in the electric chair. Below left, Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend Helen Walsh. Crowley was barely 19 years old when he was executed on Jan. 21, 1932. Among his last words, he asked the warden for a rag to wipe off the electric chair before he took his seat. “I want to wipe off the chair after that rat sat in it,” Crowley said, referring to Durringer, who had been executed weeks earlier, on Dec. 10, 1931. His request was denied. (www.swordandscale.com)

One final mention of the incident came from Ralph Barton, who named Police Commissioner Ed Mulrooney his “Hero of the Week”…

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Sub Sandwich

In his “Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey paid a visit to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where Sir Hubert Wilkins and his crew were busy preparing a narrow, cramped submarine dubbed Nautilus for a trip beneath the ice of the North Pole. Markey marveled at all of the complicated devices crammed into the vessel, but at the same time wondered why anyone would stake their life on “such flimsy things”…

TIGHT QUARTERS…The Nautilus was a refurbished O-class submarine built in 1916 for the U.S. Navy. Somehow a crew of 20 crammed into the thing. (amphilsoc.org)
The Nautilus was fitted with ice drills that would allow access to the surface of North Pole ice, as well as provide air to the crew and the vessel’s diesel engines. All this equipment was untested and unproven, since at the time submarines were not able to snorkel and had never broken through ice to reach fresh air. Click to enlarge. (Modern Mechanix)

Markey wasn’t alone in thinking such an expedition was preposterous, and from the very beginning it was beset by problems. On the very first day of preparations, March 23, 1931, a crew member fell overboard and drowned. The next day, Lady Suzanne Bennett Wilkins (Sir Hubert’s wife) christened the submarine with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne, which was unavailable due to Prohibition.

More on this in another post, but suffice to say Sir Hubert did not succeed in this endeavor, and perhaps should have listened to the advice of the Icelandic American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson:

DRY DOCK…Christened with a bottle of ice water rather than Champagne thanks to Prohibition, the Nautilus expedition, led by Sir Hubert Wilkins (inset), had to overcome many obstacles to reach the North Pole, including untested equipment such as a conning tower (right) designed to drill through ice to allow crew members to reach the surface of polar ice. (amphilsoc.org)

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Bright Star on Broadway

In spring 1931 Dorothy Parker subbed as theatre critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, and was greeted with a remarkably mediocre (or worse) line-up of shows. When Benchley returned to his post, things didn’t get much better until Rhapsody in Black came along with its inspiring star, Ethel Waters.

WELCOME RELIEF…Robert Benchley wrote that singer Ethel Waters had a “chastening effect” on even “the meanest of songs.” (Playbill/Carter Magazine)

 *  *  *

Six – Love

Eighty years ago sportswriter John Tunis declared that the Davis Cup international tennis competition would likely come to an end due to expense and the erosion of amateur play. Well, we know the Davis Cup is still around, and one wonders if Tunis was getting a whiff of sour grapes, since the French had won the cup five years straight, and would win again in 1932.

JEU, SET ET MATCH!…Dubbed Les Quatre Mousquetaires (“The Four Musketeers”), the French team of Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet (top), Jean Borotra (bottom left), and René Lacoste (bottom right) led France to six straight Davis Cup wins, 1927–1932. (Wikipedia)

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Old Gloria

To be fair, Gloria Swanson was only 32 years old in 1931, but she was so deeply associated with the silent era that by the 1930s she seemed positively ancient (a status that she would brilliantly use to her advantage in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard).   Mosher offered this “meh” review of her latest work — only her second completely-sound film — Indiscreet.

WHERE’S THE DOOR?…Ben Lyon seems perplexed by Gloria Swanson’s attentions in this theatre lobby card promoting Indiscreet. At right, Swanson delivers her trademark laser stare. (IMDB)

And we move on to our advertisers, with this ad from Publix Theatres (owned by Paramount) promoting Indiscreet

…Southern Pacific used a theme (illustrated by Don Harold) to promote travel on their trains that wouldn’t fly today…

…I include this ad for the design, which seemed to have a little of everything…

…the makers of Camel cigarettes, however, reverted to a somewhat more homespun image, abandoning the stylish, euro-set illustrations of Carl “Eric” Erickson

…on to our cartoonists, we have this caricature of Max Steuer by Al Frueh, rendered for a two-part profile…Steuer is perhaps best known for his successful defense of the factory owners after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, hmmmm…

Ralph Barton again, with his “Graphic Section”…

Garrett Price weighed the durability of modern decor…

Barbara Shermund looked at gardening challenges in the ‘burbs…

Perry Barlow gave us a glimpse of something perhaps inspired by a trip to Europe…

Richard Decker conjured a boat salesman with a loaded question…

…and we end with the great James Thurber, and a cartoon that might not pass muster today…

Next Time: Flying the Friendly Skies…

 

Fear of Flying

The early New Yorker loved two things about modern life — college football and air travel. Tragedy would bring them together on the last day of March 1931.

April 11, 1931 cover by Peter Arno. A brilliant cover, contrasting the skinny, lightly clad runner with one of Arno’s stock characters from the Taft era —  a millionaire with a walrus mustache.

The New Yorker’s sportswriter John Tunis was especially keen on Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame football team, which played an annual rivalry game against Army at Yankee Stadium. Tunis’s colleague, E.B. White, was the flying enthusiast, never missing a chance to hop aboard a plane and marvel at the scene far below. In the Nov. 30, 1929 issue, White was eager to join passengers on a test of the Fokker F-32, and suggested that flying was becoming so routine that one could be blasé about its risks:

WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?…Title card from a silent Paramount newsreel reporting on a November 1929 test flight of the Fokker F-32 at Teterboro, possibly the same flight enjoyed by E.B. White. At right, a celebration of the plane’s arrival in Los Angeles. (YouTube/petersonfield.org)

All of that exuberance came crashing down in a Kansas wheat field on March 31, 1931. It was Rockne’s fame — which the New Yorker and countless other magazines and newspapers helped to spread — that put the coach on a TWA flight to Hollywood, where director Russell Mack was filming The Spirit of Notre Dame. Rockne stopped in Kansas City, where he visited his two oldest sons, before boarding a Fokker F-10 destined for Los Angeles. About an hour after takeoff one of the airplane’s wings broke to pieces, sending Rockne and seven others to their deaths.

(University of Notre Dame) click image to enlarge

The accident rattled E.B. White. In his April 11, 1931 “Notes and Comment,” White pondered the eulogies Rockne received from President Herbert Hoover and others, calling into question the fame a college football coach could attain while achievements of college faculty go unheralded. White also seemed to have lost some of his faith in the progress of aviation, suggesting that the autogiro (a cross between an airplane and a helicopter) might be the safest way to proceed into the future:

Knute Rockne, in undated photo. (University of Notre Dame)

Ironically, it was thanks to Rockne’s fame that the aviation industry began to get serious about safety. A public outcry over the crash led to sweeping changes in everything from design to crash investigation, changes that have made flying one of the safest forms of transportation today.

SAFETY FIRST…The crash that claimed the life of Knute Rockne resulted in a public outcry for greater safety in the air. This article in the July 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics suggested parachutes for passengers and for the plane itself. (modernmechanix.com)

As for the cause of crash, it was determined that the plywood covering one of the Fokker F-10’s wings had separated from the wing’s supporting structure — the wing had been bonded together with a water-based glue that likely deteriorated as the result of rainwater seeping into the wing.

Unfortunately, the investigation into the crash was hampered by souvenir-seekers, who carried away most of the large parts of the plane even before the bodies were removed. So much for honest Midwestern values, at least in this case.

(clickamericana.com)

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Give My Regards

Back in Manhattan, Dorothy Parker was writing a eulogy of her own, bidding farewell to her interim role as theater critic. Parker subbed for Robert Benchley during his extended European vacation, and often noted that it was just her luck  to be stuck with a string of plays that likely comprised one of Broadway’s worst spring line-ups.

In an earlier column Parker had alluded to the fact that Benchley was in Europe, no doubt staying part of the time with their mutual friends, Gerald and Sara Murphy, at their fashionable “Villa America” at Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera.

SIGHT FOR SORE EYES…Dorothy Parker was glad to have her old friend Robert Benchley back at the theater desk, she having endured a “rotten time” reviewing a long string of bad plays. (dorothy parker.com)

Hopeful to review at least one play of redeeming value before her friend returned, Parker was to be sorely disappointed as evidenced in her final review column. Of the terribly dated Getting Married, a play written by George Barnard Shaw way back in 1908, Parker was more afraid of Getting Bored, especially when Helen Westley (portraying Mrs. George Collins) entered the stage to deliver a 15-minute monologue…

Things got no better with the second play Parker reviewed, Lady Beyond the Moon, a “dull, silly, dirty play” that was frequently interrupted by various sounds from the restless audience — “comments, titters and lip-noises…” The play must have been terrible, because it closed after just fifteen performances.

As for the third play Parker reviewed, the misnamed Right of Happiness, the audience had every excuse “for displayed impatience,” yet conducted itself “like a group of little lambs.” Right of Happiness, observed Parker, “fittingly concluded the horrible little pre-Easter season…” The play closed after just eleven performances.

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Turning Up the Heat

If anyone thought he had a right to happiness it would have been New York Mayor Jimmy Walker, who was preparing to face a grilling from Judge Samuel Seabury. Walker loved the nightlife and left most of his duties to a bunch of Tammany Hall cronies whose activities drew the attention of reformers like Seabury and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt. In his “A Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey observed:

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Walking Tall

Raymond Hood (1881-1934) might have been short in stature, but he stood tall among the architects of some of New York’s most iconic skyscrapers — Rockefeller Plaza, American Radiator, Daily News, McGraw Hill (Sadly, both his career and his life were cut short when he died in 1934 at age 53 from complications related to rheumatoid arthritis). Allene Talmey, a former reporter for the New York World and managing editor of Conde Naste’s original Vanity Fair, gave Hood his due (see brief excerpt) in a New Yorker profile, with a portrait by Cyrus Baldridge:

LANDMARKS…The 1931 McGraw-Hill Building and the 1929-30 Daily News Building. (MCNY/Wikipedia)
And of course, Hood’s 30 Rock. I took this last December before everything shut down.

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From Our Advertisers

Speaking of big and tall, Al Smith and his gang took out this full page ad to announce the availability of office rentals in the world’s tallest building. Thanks to the Depression, only 23 percent of the available space in the Empire State Building was rented out in its first year. Thankfully, the building was also an instant tourist attraction, with one million people each paying a dollar to ride elevators to the observation decks in 1931, matching what the owners made in rent that year…

…for those who could afford more than a dollar ride up the Empire State’s elevators, the cooling breezes of coastal California beckoned…

…those with even greater means and leisure time could hop on a boat to Europe…note that you could still cruise on the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship…also note that the illustration of the posh couple was rendered by Helen Wills (1905-1998), better known at the time as the top women’s tennis player in the world…

HELEN, MEET HELEN…American tennis star Helen Wills in 1932, and a self-portrait from the same year. Wills was the world’s top women’s tennis player for nine of the years between 1927 and 1938. She played tennis into her 80s, and sketched and painted all of her life. (Wikipedia/invaluable.com)

…Guess who’s coming to dinner?…hopefully not William Seabrook, who had just released his latest book on his adventures as an explorer…in Jungle Ways, Seabrook devoted an entire section to cannibalism in the French Sudan and how to cook human flesh; apparently he tried some himself…but then again by most accounts he was a weird dude who dabbled in occultism and possibly believed in zombies…Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island, is credited with introducing the concept of zombies to popular culture…

…speaking of weird, an ad for Michelsen’s “Bay Rum” body rub…

…when Marlboro cigarettes were introduced in the mid-1920s, they were marketed as “luxury” cigarettes and sold mostly at resorts and hotels. In the late 1920s, however, they were marketed as a “lady’s cigarette,” with ads in the New Yorker featuring handwriting and penmanship contests to promote the brand. This ad from November 1930 featured the “second prize” winner of their amateur copywriting contest…

…it appears marketing tactics changed a bit in 1931…still the dopey contest, but instead of real photos of winners, like the schoolmarmish “Miss Dorothy Shepherd” above, this ad featured a rather tawdry image of a model, more gun moll than schoolmarm…

…on to our cartoonists…Ralph Barton, who was with the New Yorker from Day One, had been increasing his contributions to the magazine after a notable absence from spring 1929 to summer 1930…beset by manic-depression, he would take his own life in May 1931, so what we are seeing are Barton’s last bursts of creativity before his tragic end, reviving old favorites like “The Graphic Section”…

Barbara Shermund entertained with some parlor room chatter…

Leonard Dove looked in on a couple of frisky old duffers…

William Crawford Galbraith, and a crashing bore…

John Held Jr gave us one of his “naughty” engravings…

…and two by our dear Helen Hokinson, stuck in traffic…

…and enjoying cake and ice cream, with a dab of culture…

Next Time: An Unmarried Woman…

The End of the World

In today’s world of endless media options, it is hard to fathom the influence newspapers had over daily life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was one news source that many New Yorkers simply could not live without: The New York World.

March 7, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

So when the World ceased publication after a 70-year run, many of its readers struggled to come to terms with the loss. Despite the World’s working class appeal and sensationalistic reporting, E.B. White nevertheless counted himself among its mourners, offering a lengthy eulogy in his “Notes and Comment” column…

THE COLOR OF MONEY…Under the leadership of Joseph Pulitzer, who bought the World in 1883, the newspaper began an aggressive era of circulation building, and in 1896 enticed readers with pages printed by one of the world’s first four-color printing presses. The World was the first newspaper to launch a Sunday color supplement, which featured “The Yellow Kid” cartoon Hogan’s Alley (above, right). (5dguide.com)

A pioneer of yellow journalism, the World also featured sensational stories and headlines to capture the attention of readers…

…however, the World was also home to a number of prominent journalists, including the famed Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (aka Nellie Bly) and many writers from the social orbit of the Algonquin Round Table who were also early contributors to the fledgling New Yorker.

In his “Notes” essay, White suggests that he found something authentic in the World’s sensational style, and praised it for going after stories that more staid publications, like the New York Times, tended to ignore or downplay. The World’s staff of writers came from the rough and tumble, muckraking world of journalism, the same world in which the New Yorker’s founding editor, Harold Ross, first cut his teeth.

ALL-STAR LINE-UP…Many of the World’s famed writers inhabited the orbit of the New Yorker and the Algonquin Round Table, including, from left, music critic Deems Taylor, journalist and social critic Heywood Broun, “The Conning Tower” columnist Franklin P. Adams, and humorist Frank Sullivan. (deemstaylor.com/britannica.com/Wikipedia)

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Swedish Sphinx?

Thirty years after her death, Greta Garbo remains an iconic figure in popular culture, due to her expressive eyes and sensuality, but perhaps even more so due to her elusive air. In her profile of the star for the New Yorker, titled “American Pro Tem,” Virgilia Peterson Ross refused to buy into the mysterious aura that was partly manufactured by Garbo’s handlers at MGM. The other part, however, was genuine Garbo, who detested parties, serious talk, and other formalities.

THE FACE…Like her contemporary Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo preferred an androgynous look. From left, Garbo wearing the flat-heeled oxfords she favored; publicity photo from 1932; wearing one of her trademark berets in the late 1930s. (garboforever.com)

Ross touched on Garbo’s love life — she never married in her 84 years, but she was close to her mentor, Finnish director Mauritz Stiller, who died in 1928, having been eclipsed by his protégé. Garbo’s co-star in the silents, John Gilbert — known as a great lover on the screen — wanted to marry Garbo, but she balked at his frequent proposals. The two lived together intermittently in 1926 and 1927, Gilbert helping Garbo not only with her acting also teaching her how to behave like a star and barter with studio bosses. Garbo later admitted that she was in love with Gilbert, but preferred to remain single because she “always wanted to be the boss.” Drink and despair would send Gilbert to an early grave in 1936. In her profile piece, Ross concluded that Garbo was “not a mystery to be solved,” but rather “a limpid child.”

THE MEN IN HER LIFE…Greta Garbo contemplates a new-fangled microphone with film director Clarence Brown on the set of Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie. Brown would direct Garbo in seven different films; Garbo with sometime lover John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). They would appear in four films together; Garbo with Finnish director and early mentor Mauritz Stiller, in 1926. (Wikipedia/IMDB/garboforever.com)

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Suffering Artist

Dorothy Parker continued to sub as theater critic for her friend, Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. It was not a task to her liking — during her temporary stint she had yet to see a play that didn’t insult her taste or her intelligence. Her review for the March 7 issue would prove no different.

BROADWAY BLAHS…Dorothy Parker had yet to find a play to her liking in her stint as theater critic for the New Yorker. To her credit, she had to sit through a couple of stinkers: A Woman Denied lasted about a month — 37 performances — and Paging Danger closed its curtains for good after just four performances. (Playbill/BBC)

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The Misanthrope

To call Wyndham Lewis a character is an understatement. The English writer, social critic and painter (he founded the cubist-inspired Vorticist movement) managed to offend just about everybody before his death in 1957. He was described by the London Review as “fiercely unsentimental,” and that is how I would describe this opening paragraph from his short story “Dark Party”…

CLASSIC POSE…A 1929 portrait of Wyndham Lewis by photographer George Charles Beresford. (Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

A couple of ads appealing to women readers of the New Yorker, including this elegant bon voyage scene advertising travel clothes…

…and something you never see anymore, the “boneless” girdle…replaced today by Spanx and the like…

…Before we roll into our cartoons, some cinema-inspired art by Al Frueh

Alan Dunn went out to dinner…

Garrett Price went on safari…

E. McNerney channelled his inner Arno for this backstage scene…

…and the real Peter Arno gave us this passing scene which recalled his old Whoops Sisters gags…

Next Time: Age of Wonders…