Not Even Funny

There were a number of people Dorothy Parker couldn’t abide. That included gifted writers who not only eschewed serious literature, but who instead chose to crank out a lot of mass-market trash.

March 18, 1933 cover by William Steig.

Parker was well acquainted with Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer (1902–1959), and for a time she even associated with the Fortean Society, which Thayer founded in 1931. Inspired by writer Charles Fort, the Forteans promoted the use of scientific methods to evaluate unexplained phenomena such as UFOs, spontaneous human combustion, and other oddities. Parker and fellow New Yorker writers Ben Hecht and Alexander Woollcott were among founding members, doubtless drawn to Fort’s reputation as a skeptic; however one famous skeptic, journalist H.L. Mencken, called Fort’s ideas “Bohemian mush.” It’s hard to say how long Parker stayed connected to the Society, but by 1933 she was fed up with Thayer’s novels, including his latest, An American Girl, which she found to be “the gaudiest flower of pretentiousness.” Here is an excerpt from Parker’s sometime column, “Reading and Writing,” subtitled Not Even Funny…

TIFF WITH TIFFANY…At left, Tiffany Thayer aboard a cruise ship with an unidentified woman, most likely his first wife, a dancer named Tanagra, early 1930s; at right, Dorothy Parker and a first edition of the offending volume. In her review, Parker observed that Taylor “is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.” (IMDB/Worthpoint)

Although Thayer founded a society based on scientific reason, his pulp novels were filled with fantasy and prurient imagery. F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”

BELIED LETTRES…Clockwise from top left, Thayer’s 1931 novel Call Her Savage was made into a 1932 film starring Clara Bow, here featured on the book’s dustcover; the same novel repackaged in 1952 for the pulp trade; a 1943 edition of Thayer’s One-Man Show, and a 1951 Avon reprint that toned down the nudity but upped the creep factor. (facebook.com/biblio.com)

…and speaking of creep factor, check out Avon’s 1950 re-issue of Thayer’s 1937 novel The Old Goat, illustration attributed to Edgar Lyle Justis

(biblio.com)

Artists like Justis must have had a ball doing these illustrations, creating images to lure the unsuspecting into purchasing these old titles. Note how the coked-up old man sports not-so-subtle devil horns.

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They Called It a Holiday

E.B. White, James Thurber (see below) and others in the March 18 issue commented on the national banking “holiday” declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to stabilize America’s banking system and rebuild public confidence. This led to the Glass-Steagall Act, signed three months later by FDR. Some observations in “Notes and Comment” by E.B. White, with the usual great spot illustrations by Otto Soglow

SAY CHEESE!…President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Glass-Steagall Act on June 16, 1933, effectively separating commercial banking from investment banking and creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), among other things. (AP)

…meanwhile, Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was busy abolishing civil liberties while pretending to be distressed by the behavior of his brownshirt thugs…an excerpt from Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things”…

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A Familiar Ring

For the second week in a row Ring Lardner lent his wit to The New Yorker’s “Over the Waves,” column, which typically reviewed the latest news and entertainment beamed from the radio tower atop the Empire State Building. Lardner, however, was in California, lamenting the challenges of the time lag. An excerpt:

AND NO WI-FI, EITHER…Ring Lardner (center) detailed the frustrations of listening to New York-based radio entertainers like Eddie Cantor (left) and Rudy Vallée during his stay in California. (Pinterest/The Classic Archives/New York Times)

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Dance Away Those Blues

The pre-Code musical 42nd Street received a brief, albeit mostly positive review from critic John Mosher, who along with the producers of the film knew Depression-weary Americans needed such distractions. Nearly 90 years later (April 10, 2020), another New Yorker film critic, Richard Brody, suggested 42nd Street as one of the best films to stream during the Covid-19 pandemic: “Modern musicals start here, and Busby Berkeley’s genius bursts into full flower,” he wrote.

DANCE ‘TIL YOU DROP…Under pressure to produce a hit after losing his lead dancer (Bebe Daniels) to a broken ankle, Broadway musical director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter, center) mercilessly rehearses her replacement, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler, in her film debut) before the premiere, vowing “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl.” Looking on (to the right of Baxter) is Ginger Rogers, who portrayed “Anytime Annie.” (tcm.com)
A LEG UP ON HIS CAREER…42nd Street was a breakthrough film for choreographer Busby Berkeley, who would direct and choreograph a long string of musicals until the 1960s. The film is now considered a classic, preserved in the United States National Film Registry. (IMDB)

…and for trivia buffs, during an opening scene Bebe Daniels is shown reading the February 20, 1932 (anniversary) issue of The New Yorker…

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From Our Advertisers

A convertible LaSalle (a downscale Cadillac brand) looks like a great way to enjoy a drive along the beach…let’s hope it has enough acceleration to outrun the tsunami apparently heading its way…

Walter Chrysler continued to dig into his deep pockets for two-page color spreads, including this one that placed his humble DeSoto in St. Moritz, of all places…

…not to be outdone, the folks at Nash found another exotic locale for their budget-priced sedan…Chicago, that is, at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition…and for an extra touch of class, we have what appears to be a chauffeur attending to this modest motorcar…

…America’s top luxury car maker, Pierce Arrow — a regular advertiser in The New Yorker — decided a quarter-page ad was sufficient to keep their name before the eyes of the well-heeled…at right, an ad from another back page featured cartoonist Don Herold shilling for the makers of imitation liquor flavors…according to the ad, one bottle, obtainable from your druggist, “flavors a gallon” of whatever forsaken hootch you are consuming…

…the folks at Log Cabin relied on the talents of another New Yorker cartoonist, John Held Jr., to make both their product and a signature cocktail a more palatable experience…

…I have to hand it to the folks at Heinz for signing off on an advertisement only a vampire would find appealing…

…the purveyors of Marie Earle beauty products rolled out this modern ad to promote their “Essential Cream”…

…while staid Brooks Brothers remained true to form — no flashy colors or advertising jargon — just straight talk about price increases….

…and then there’s the upmarket Fortnum & Mason, appealing to America’s Anglophiles with one of their famed wicker hampers filled with various goodies selected for “charming and greedy people”…

….for several years R.J. Reynolds employed the services of Carl “Eric” Erickson (1891–1958) to illustrate a series of ads featuring classy, disinterested, continental types smoking their Camel brand cigarettes…despite their less-than-exotic name, the makers of Spud menthol cigarettes hired Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom (1905–1986) to create their own smart set of smokers…

…ads that bore a striking resemblance to Erickson’s Camel work (this example from 1931)…

…and for your consideration, works from 1933 by Carl Erickson and Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom…both were noted fashion illustrators…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with Charles Addams, who’d just published his first New Yorker cartoon the previous month, in the Feb. 4, 1933 issue

…that first cartoon was simply signed “Addams”…here he used the familiar “Chas Addams”…a close-up of the signature…

…we continue with a great caricature by Al Frueh to accompany a profile of Rudolf Kommer (as told by Alexander Woollcott)…

…a delightful full page of bank holiday-themed cartoons by James Thurber

Richard Decker offered up a tall tale…

…and we close with Peter Arno, who served up one of his clueless cuckolds…

Next Time: Diary of a Lady…

 

Not Your Grandpa’s Tammany Hall

For more than a century, a political organization known as the Tammany Society ruled New York City politics with an iron fist. Founded in 1786 (and named for Tamanend, a chief in the Lenni-Lenape nation), by the mid 19th century it rapidly expanded its political control by earning the loyalty of the city’s fast-growing immigrant population, particularly the Irish.

July 13, 1929 cover by Rea Irvin.

The Tammany Society proved an efficient machine for controlling state Democratic politics as well as New York City elections. Through its use of patronage to reward loyal precinct leaders, it also became a center for big-time graft. Most of us know a bit about Tammany thanks to school history books that focused on the deep corruption of William “Boss” Tweed, who was brought down by the press and by Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast in the 1870s. Tammany Hall would survive the scandal, and in the 1920s would still pull the strings of politicians including Gov. Al Smith and New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.

Tammany had several homes, but during its most notorious years it was located in a circa 1812 hall (then called a “wigwam”) and later in an 1868 building on 14th Street, between Third and Fourth avenues. The July 13, 1929 “Talk of the Town” noted the recent demolition of that old hall and the opening of a new headquarters on 17th Street:

POLITICAL BAGGAGE…Top, a stereoscope card featuring the 1868 Tammany Hall; below, Thomas Nast cartoons depicting the corruption of Tammany Hall and the downfall of Boss Tweed. (Wikimedia Commons/Smithsonian)

“Talk” found the new building unimpressive; it seemed to signal that the old political machine was losing some of its luster:

EVOLUTION OF THE WIGWAM, as depicted on a poster circa 1920. (nypdhistory.com)
Top left: The old Tammany Hall, decorated for the 1868 Democratic National Convention. Bottom left, the old hall was located at 141 E 14th Street, between 3rd and 4th Avenues. It was demolished in 1927 to make way for expansion of the Consolidated Edison building (right).  (NYPL Digital Gallery/mediahistoryny.files.wordpress.com/Wikipedia)

Indeed, “Talk” found the building to be a somewhat austere, hosed-down affair, far removed from its grander past:

I LIKE YOUR NEW HAT…The 1929 Tammany Hall (top left) is currently undergoing a major renovation. Although the interior is being dramatically altered, including the addition of a glass dome, the landmarked exterior will mostly be preserved. When completed, the building—a mix of office and retail—will be known as 44 Union Square. (bkskarch.com)

For further evidence that the more austere Tammany Hall was nevertheless alive and well in 1929, another “Talk” item noted the organization’s continued influence behind the scenes in local politics:

The 1930s marked the beginning of the end for Tammany Hall, when reform-minded Democrats such as President Franklin Roosevelt and New York’s Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (supported by Roosevelt on a “Fusion” ticket) dismantled Tammany’s system of patronage. The Tammany Society abandoned its headquarters in 1943 when it found it no longer had the funds to maintain the hall. Bought by a local affiliate of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, it later housed the New York Film Academy and the Union Square Theatre until 2016, when it underwent extensive remodeling to make way for new office and retail space.

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Your Two Cents Worth

“Talk” also commented on the introduction of a new two-cent stamp that featured an image of Thomas Edison’s Mazda lamp, marking the celebration of 50 years of electric light. The magazine cheekily suggested that in the world of technological progress, there was nothing new under the sun:

(eBay)

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Americans in Paris

The New Yorker featured this humorous bit by a writer identified as “Guido” (I assume it is one of E.B. White’s many pseudonyms), who looked in on the chatter of various Parisian cafés and bars:

VOLSTEAD CAN’T GET US HERE…Enjoying the good life at a Parisian brasserie, circa 1920s. (National Geographic)

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Hit and Miss

The New Yorker generally reveled in the good times Florenz Ziegfeld brought to the stage, but his latest effort, Show Girl, proved a bit of a disappointment (more evidence, in my view, that folks were tiring of the decade-long party known as the Roaring Twenties):

TAP-DANCING ON THE GRAVE OF THE ROARING TWENTIES…Although the New Yorker seemed less than enthused by Flo Ziegfeld’s latest effort, Show Girl, Ruby Keeler (top left) brought her tap shoes and her ‘A’ game to the performance. Clockwise, from top right, Keeler has some fun with the comedy trio Clayton, Jackson and Durante; program cover for Show Girl; the popular Albertina Rasch Girls with Harriet Hoctor in the “An American in Paris” scene of Show Girl, 1929. (Pinterest/jacksonupperco.com/eBay/songbook1.wordpress.com)

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One of a Kind

New Yorker sportswriter Niven Busch, Jr. provided a nice write-up on golfer Bobby Jones, the most successful amateur ever to compete in the sport. An attorney by trade, the unassuming Jones had just won his third U.S. Open (he would win again in 1930). In all he would play in 31 majors, winning 13 of them and finishing in the top 10 an incredible 27 times. After retiring at age 28 in 1930 he helped design the Augusta National Golf Club and co-founded the Masters Tournament. An excerpt:

AND HE DID IT WEARING A NECKTIE…Although a lawyer by trade, the amateur golfer Bobby Jones was one of golf’s greatest champions. He pictured here after winning the 1929 U.S.Open in Mamaroneck, New York. (golf digest.com)

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An Odd Bit

Looking around the July 13 issue, let’s see what nighttime diversions were being touted by the New Yorker in their “Going on About Town” section (note the warning on the last item):

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Pond’s cold cream continued to roll out endorsements from high society with this testimonial from Jane Kendall Mason (1909-1980), the newlywed wife of George Grant Mason, an executive with Pan American Airways in Cuba.

In 1925, the 17-year-old Jane made her formal debut in Washington society. After a visit with Grace Goodhue Coolidge, the first lady famously declared that Jane was “the most beautiful girl ever to enter the White House.”

After their marriage, the Masons became friends with Ernest and Pauline Hemingway, and introduced the Hemingways into Cuban society. Jane could hunt, fish, and hold her liquor, and, according to Ernest Hemingway, she was the most uninhibited person he’d ever met. So naturally they had a torrid, tempestuous, two-month affair that ended with Jane’s attempted suicide (she leapt from a balcony that was not high enough to do the job).

Hemingway supposedly used Jane as a model for the cruel-hearted Margot Macomber in The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber, in which the title character—trapped in a sad marriage to a wealthy but spineless American (George?)—accidently shoots her husband in the head while on safari. She is also considered to be the model for the sex-obsessed Helene Bradley in Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not— a character also married to a rich but spineless husband.

Carlos Gutierrez (who served as a boat guide for Ernest Hemingway) and Jane Mason aboard “Sloppy” Joe Russell’s boat Anita in 1933. (Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

…and we segue into our cartoons, featuring a mother and child (drawn by Kindl) probably flying on one of those Sikorskys…

Rollin Kirby looked in on a tailor’s shop (this is one of only two drawings published by Kirby in the New Yorker)…

…a note on Kirby, a three-time Pulitzer winner: outraged by the passage of Prohibition laws, Kirby created one of his most famous characters, “Mr. Dry,” which he introduced to readers of the New York World in January 1920…

Rollin Kirby’s miserly, foreboding “Mr. Dry” made his first appearance in the pages of the New York World on Jan. 17, 1920, shortly after Prohibition laws went into effect in the United States. Mr. Dry also made an appearance at the end of 1920, to throw some water on America’s Christmas cheer. (bottlesboozeandbackstories.blogspot.com)

You can read more about Rollin Kirby and Mr. Dry here.

Roland Baum peeked in on a reluctant stargazer…

…and to close, this little filler drawing of a hot dog vendor by Constantin Alajalov…

Next Time: On the Flatfoot Beat…