Dream Cars

Whether or not you could afford a new car in Depression-era New York, you could afford to take your mind off the hard times for a few hours and visit the annual National Automobile Show at Grand Central Palace.

Jan. 16, 1932 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The 1932 exhibition featured many familiar brands, and others that would not survive the decade. Bolstered in part by the largess of General Motors and its downscale LaSalles, Cadillac could offer a pricey edition of the Fleetwood (at $5,542, roughly equivalent to $100K today), but most car makers featured models with reduced prices and/or smaller engines, as well as new technologies and design features they hoped would attract buyers of modest means. Excerpts from the New Yorker’s “Motors” column:

CAN’T TOUCH THIS…The Cadillac V16 Fleetwood sat atop the American car world in 1932. (classicdriver.com)
LOOK, BUT DON’T BUY…The New Yorker noted the crowds gathered around the Studebaker –produced “Rockne” at the National Automobile Show. Named for the famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne (who died in a 1931 plane crash), this 1932 model attracted plenty of gawkers at the show but few buyers. It was soon discontinued, and leftover Rocknes were disassembled and sent to Norway, where they were reassembled and sold to Scandinavian buyers. (conceptcarz.com)
DOUBLE VISION…The 1932 Oakland Roadster (left) marked the end of the Oakland Motorcar Company, which had been previously acquired by General Motors. That same year Oakland was reborn as the Pontiac division, and the Oakland Roadster was reimagined as the 1932 Pontiac Model 302 (right). (Hemmings/justamericanautomobiles.com)
PALACE OF DREAMS…Grand Central Palace (top right) sat at Lexington Ave. between 46th and 47th Streets. A favorite locale for manufacturers to display their latest wares, it was demolished in 1963; at left, images from the 1935 National Automobile Show; bottom right, 1932 copy of The Wheel, produced by Studebaker for distribution at auto shows. (freelibrary.org/chicagology.com)

Whether folks were able to shell out more than $5,000 for a Caddy or a mere $700 for Plymouth, many left the show with nothing more than dreams for better days. Howard Brubaker summed it up thusly in his “Of All Things” column:

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Darling Lily

Coloratura soprano Lily Pons (1898 – 1976) was not well-known in her native France when she took the Metropolitan Opera stage by storm in 1931 — she would become the Met’s principal soprano and, in 1940, an American citizen. The singer was profiled by Janet Flanner in the Jan. 16 issue (caricature by Miguel Covarrubias). Excerpts:

FRENCH TOAST OF THE TOWN…Coloratura soprano Lily Pons was particularly associated with the title roles of Lakmé (pictured above, mid-1930s), and Lucia di Lammermoor. Pons was a principal soprano at New York’s Metropolitan Opera for 30 years, appearing 300 times from 1931 until 1960. (Pinterest/YouTube)

If you have a few minutes, check out Lily Pon’s 1935 performance of “The Bell Song” from the film I Dream Too Much, which co-starred Henry Fonda. Although the sound quality is not the greatest, you can still get a pretty good idea why Met audiences adored her.

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Fantasy Bridge

Satirist Ring Lardner found something rotten in the behavior of robber barons and politicians in the midst of the Depression, so he imagined a bridge game that brought together banker J.P. Morgan (Jr), John D. Rockefeller (then the richest person in America and perhaps the world), Sen. Reed Smoot of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act (a catalyst for the Depression), and social worker Jane Addams. Excerpts:

DEAL ME OUT…Ring Lardner addressed the wages of greed through a fantasy bridge game. (Dallas Morning News)

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From Our Advertisers

If you were one of J.P. Morgan’s bankers, you might have considered hopping on a United flight instead of taking the train — within 20 years, airlines would make a serious dent into railroad’s corporate travel business…

…and if you were a successful banker, your daughter or granddaughter might have been an aspiring deb with some very specific needs…

…the Little King also had some specific fashion needs, as Otto Soglow brings us to the cartoon section…

…with the Auto Show in town, Helen Hokinson got her girls into the conversation…

…the “wizard control” they refer to was Buick’s gimmick to attract more women drivers to their product…here’s an ad from the Feb. 6 issue of the New Yorker:

…back to our cartoons with James Thurber, and the “war” that continued to brew between men and women (note artwork on the wall)…

Al Freuh offered his perspective on meagre predictions for prosperity…

…as did one of William Steig’s precocious children…

…and Helen again with another privileged view of the downtrodden…

Barbara Shermund showed us one woman’s interpretation of “belonging”…

…and Denys Wortman gave us one salesman who probably dreamed of some solitary drinking…

…on to our Jan. 23, 1932 issue…

Jan. 23, 1932 cover by Rea Irvin.

…and this item in “The Talk of the Town,” which noted the challenges of publishing a book about Adolf Hitler

…and a few pages later, we are treated to an E.B. White “song” written for delegates to the Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments which was being convened in Geneva, Switzerland…

Delegates from sixty countries attended the Geneva conference. They were there to consider the German demand that other nations disarm to the same levels that had been imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles. The conference deadlocked by the summer, and when it was reconvened in February 1933 Hitler had just assumed power in Germany. By fall 1933 Germany withdrew from both the Disarmament Conference and the League of Nations, and the stage was set for another world war.

Here is a 1933 photo of the delegates to the Disarmament Conference before things went south:

(wdl.org)

A detail of the photo (below) reveals the identity of the tiny man seated at center: the representative from Germany — Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Just twelve years hence Goebbels would find himself trapped with Hitler and Eva Braun in a Berlin bunker as Soviet troops demolished the city above them. Goebbels and his wife, Magda, would poison their six children, and then themselves as the Third Reich crumbled to ashes.

A final note: The delegates weren’t alone in Geneva, as a number of peace organizations sent observers and demonstrators to the conference, many of them women:

APPEALS TO DEAF EARS…Women’s disarmament campaigner in Geneva, c.1932; right, a poster created by Dutch artist Giele Roelofs for the Northern Friends Peace Board and others. (London School of Economics/armingallsides.org.uk)

We’ll give the last word to Howard Brubaker in Jan. 30 “Of All Things” column:

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From Our Advertisers

With the National Automobile Show wrapping up, the Grand Central Palace prepared to welcome exhibitors for the annual Motor Boat Show…

…the woman in this next ad might have been better off in a boat than on the beach…I’m wondering if the artist had any idea that his or her illustration would be used to promote coffee…it’s hard to tell what is going on here…apparently a young woman has almost drowned and is receiving oxygen, or maybe she doesn’t really need it, and the perverted lifeguard and cop just want to ogle the poor beachgoer, who seems bored by the whole predicament…

…there is also something vaguely sexual going on in this ad for Vicks (what is he looking out for in panel four?)…the artist (the cartoon is signed “Len”) seems to be channeling one of Rea Irvin’s series cartoons…

…in the early 20th century it was fashionable to smoke imported luxury Egyptian cigarettes, or counterfeits like Ramses II, produced in the U.S. by the Stephano Brothers…

…the makers of Camel were among the most successful counterfeiters of Egyptian  cigarettes — the camel, pyramids and palm tree motifs were no mistake, but by 1932 this established brand (launched in 1913) went less for snob appeal and more for the active, fresh-faced youths whose pink lungs were highly coveted by R.J. Reynolds…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with James Thurber and some more sexual tension…

Garrett Price found a young hostess eager to to please…

Perry Barlow introduced us to a young man who (almost) never forgets a face…

William Crawford Galbraith dined with the uppers, not necessarily known for their literary sophistication…

Barbara Shermund gave us a proud collector who managed to evade the Puritans in U.S. Customs…

William Steig showed us pride of a different sort…

…and another by Steig displayed the antics of one of his “Small Fry”…

…and we end with Helen Hokinson, who found a local women’s club joining the debate raging far away at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva…

Next Time: Back in the USSR…

Frozen at 30 Rock

To call Lewis Mumford an architecture critic would do him a disservice. He was indeed an outspoken voice on New York’s changing skyline, informed by a keen understanding of history and aesthetics, but his criticisms were also those of a philosopher, a political commentator, a city planner, and an authority on matters concerning art, literature, society and culture.

June 20, 1931 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The June 20, 1931 issue marks the entrance of Mumford (1895-1990) to our New Yorker story, and just in time to offer his perspectives on the Rockefeller Center project, which was about to commence.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD…This Midtown neighborhood was torn down shortly after the photo was taken to make room for the massive Rockefeller Center project. The view is from the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street looking to the southeast. One of the spires of St. Patrick’s is visible at far left, and the Chrysler Building can be glimpsed in the distant center. Lewis Mumford was no fan of giant skyscrapers or other “mega” building projects, and would have preferred something more on this smaller scale for Rockefeller Center. (Museum of the City of New York – MCNY)

The proposed project — then referred to as “Radio City” — received negative reviews from a number of critics, although the most pointed came from Mumford, who disliked “mega” building projects such as Rockefeller’s, labeling it as “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos.”

RECKLESS, ROMANTIC CHAOS is how Lewis Mumford, left, described plans for Rockefeller Center. At right, the May 1931 issue of Popular Science featured the project’s plans. (Pinterest/Google Books)

Mumford’s Emersonian temperament favored simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; he believed skyscrapers and other “megamachines” were dehumanizing and even dishonest. In this next excerpt he poses a question about the so-called pragmatic “money men” behind the project: “Are the practical men practical?” We read on…

WELCOME TO CLOUDCUCKOOLAND…That was Mumford’s own term to describe plans for Rockefeller’s “Radio City.” An early rendering from 1928 (left) referred to the project as “Metropolitan Square,” and for a time it was slated to include a new Metropolitan Opera house.  Joseph Urban proposed this Fifth Avenue-facing design (right) in 1927, but plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. (ephemeralnewyork)
BLANK SLATE…With the site mostly cleared, construction commenced in the fall of 1931. This image is from December 16, 1931. (MCNY)

Mumford concluded that the opportunity to create a restful respite from the clamor of the city had been lost on the project, which just promised more “razzle-dazzle” and “incongruous jangle,” an interesting observation given that other New Yorker writers were generally dazzled by the skyscrapers and other gigantic projects that were rapidly erasing the old city.

True to his beliefs, Mumford lived a simple life in an old country house in Amenia, New York, a small town in the northern reaches of the Hudson Valley region.

FAR FROM THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE…Mumford house in Amenia, NY. (Wikipedia)

Historian Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center, notes that Mumford was eventually won over by Rockefeller Center in the end, calling it “a serene eyeful” and “the most exciting mass of buildings in the city.” I have to agree.

SERENE EYEFUL…Images of Rockefeller Center from 1939 (left) and 1935. (flickr.com/MCNY)

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Summertime Reads

A quick glance at the new books listed at the end of the New Yorker’s book review column shows us a nice variety of summertime diversions, including a book about Josef Stalin written before his Great Purge that murdered a million of his own citizens…then there was the memoir Blood on the Moon written by Jim Tully, “America’s most famous hobo author”…the book Life Among the Lowbrows by Eleanor Rowland Wembridge also caught my eye…I believe I’m almost set for the summer…

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS…Misfits and lowlifes peppered the books of both “hobo writer” Jim Tully (left) and psychologist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, although from very different perspectives. While Wembridge took a more clinical approach to the underclasses, Tully used them for material in his hardscrabble stories. Guess which one ended up in Hollywood. (scpr.org/apadivisions.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Jantzen swimwear took a slightly risqué approach in advertising their latest women’s line…

…the owners of the Majestic, on the other hand, used snob appeal and a sense of heightened grandeur to promote their Central Park West apartments…

…advertisers of non-alcoholic drinks tried their best to capture the allure of cocktails, and I imagine much of their product was mixed with something a bit more interesting…

William Steig was hitting his stride as one of the newer cartoon contributors to the New Yorker

…with two of his entries featured in the June 20 issue…Steig would live 95 years and be productive throughout his life…nearly 60 years after these cartoons appeared in the New Yorker he would publish the children’s book Shrek!, the basis for the popular movie series…

…earlier in his career, Steig would also find fame for his series of Small Fry cartoons featuring children in adult situations, anticipating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts…this next cartoon, however, is not by Steig but by Alan Dunn, perhaps anticipating Steig…

Gardner Rea continued to explore the foibles of the well-heeled…

John Held Jr amused us with another of his rustic “woodcuts”…

Garrett Price shot the rapids with a hapless suitor…

…here is one the six cartoons Crawford Young contributed to the New Yorker in 1931-32, capturing a moment in which the chicken-egg question is largely moot…

…and another look into the leisure classes courtesy Barbara Shermund

…and we close the June 20 issue with James Thurber, who showed us a fellow who probably regretted his evening out…

…Thurber also brings into the next issue, June 27…

June 27, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea

…in which he recounted his adventures in bird-watching and the mating habits of crows…

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A Falling (Lone) Star

In her “Letter From Paris,” Janet Flanner reported that the allure of the “Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan, did not extend to French shores, where among other things she ran afoul of labor laws that dissuaded non-citizens from working in France.

BEGINNING OF THE END…Associated with risqué entertainments in various speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression prompted Texas Guinan to take to the road with her show. After attempting (and failing) to make a tour of Europe, she returned to the States for one final road trip. Above left, Guinan in the 1933 film Broadway Through a Keyhole, which would open just three days before her death. At right, headline from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle trumpeting Guinan’s French debacle. (pre-code.com/

Upon her return to the States, Guinan took advantage of her well-publicized dismissal from France and launched the satirical revue Too Hot for Paris. This traveling show would also mark the beginning of the end for Guinan, who would contract amoebic dysentery during a run of the show at the Chicago World’s Fair. It would claim her life on Nov. 5, 1933, at age 49.

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They Put the Ping Into Pong

“They” being the Parker Brothers, who took umbrage at anyone who questioned their sole right to market genuine “Ping-Pong” balls. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

The “Talk” item ended with a little surprise about Mr. George Parker himself:

VINTAGE…A 1902 ping-pong set from Parker Brothers. (Worthpoint)

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From Our Advertisers

Some lovely color ads, including this message that paired playful porpoises with leaded gasoline…

…this ad was about color itself, and how Powers Reproduction Corporation could make your images pop…

…and another sad Prohibition-era ad from the makers of Budweiser, in this case, a non-alcoholic version that looks like the real thing…of course what is even sadder about this ad is the suggestion that plantation life was something one should fondly hearken back to…

…on to our cartoons, and another terrific illustration from Barbara Shermund

…and we have Otto Soglow’s Little King, who temporarily lost his crown…

…and another from Soglow, at the men’s store…

Carl Rose gave us a chap contemplating the burdens of a Guggenheim “genius” grant…

Peter Arno revealed that his Major had two left feet…

…and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, we end as we began, with Gardner Rea

Next Time: Firecracker Lane…