A Peach of a Scandal

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Cover for August 15, 1925, by H.O. Hoffman.

Ralph Barton’s “The Graphic Section” in the August 15, 1925 edition of The New Yorker gave readers their first whiff of one of the sensational scandals of the Roaring Twenties. Barton reported that wealthy, middle-aged bachelor Edward Browning (then 51 years old) wanted to “adopt” a “sixteen-year-old cutie for his very own.”

What Barton referenced in his comic illustration foreshadowed the “Peaches” scandal that would occur the following year.

According to an April 1, 2012 article by Dan Lee in New York Magazine (titled with the subhead, “She was 16, he was 52, what could go wrong?”), Browning was well known in New York City “as perhaps the most idiosyncratic of the city’s eligible bachelors…worth what would now be an estimated $300 million.”

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Ralph Barton illustrates Edward Browning’s predicament in “adopting” Mary Louise Spas. (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Lee writes that Browning was already a tabloid fixture at age 40 when he married his first wife, Adele, a considerably younger file clerk. They adopted two daughters, Marjorie and “little Dorothy Sunshine,” Browning’s favorite. When Adele left him for a “28-year-old playboy dentist,” they split the girls between them. Browning, of course, chose “Sunshine,” and vowed never to marry again. Lee takes it from there:

In what the tabloids quickly helped morph into a Willy Wonka–style lottery, Daddy set about finding a sister for Sunshine: After personally reviewing 12,000 applications and interviewing scores of would-be daughters, he chose Mary Louise Spas of Queens, who, despite being 16 and therefore two years older than the cutoff, bore a charming gold tooth and stole his heart. A My Fair Lady transformation ensued, rapturously reported by the press, which continued trolling Spas’s past, ultimately uncovering revealing swimsuit photos that led to school records that led to the disclosure that Mary was actually 21 and not poor. Daddy moved to have the adoption annulled. Mary responded with a tabloid tell-all and lawsuit, alleging Daddy was a pervert.

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“Daddy” helps “Peaches” with her coat. If that is an image of the Titantic, the irony is just too rich…(Retronaut)

According to Lee, Browning then turned his attention to charity, “especially for a local chapter of the Phi Lambda Tau social sorority for high-school girls, of which he was the main benefactor.” Lee continues:

The sorority’s primary function was throwing dances across Manhattan for girls in scanty flapper dress, where Daddy, with his long, sagging face and steep W-collared dress shirts, smoked cigars and held court. And so it went that one night, inside the ballroom of the Hotel McAlpin on 34th and Broadway, Browning’s life intersected with Frances Heenan’s, whom the press would describe as a “chubby,” strawberry-blonde high-school dropout with “piano legs” but an inexplicably “magnetic” smile who worked as a shop clerk and lived with her single mother in Washington Heights. He likened her to peaches and cream, securing her lifelong nickname. Thirty-seven days later to thwart a child-protective-services investigation, they were married.

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Peaches and Daddy with African goose. (brandypurdy.blogspot)

The wedding took place on June 23, 1926, Peaches’ 16th birthday, but later that year, Peaches would seek a divorce.

The divorce trial in White Plains, New York drew intense coverage by the tabloids including Bernarr McFadden’s notorious New York Graphic, which published “composographs” of the couple, including this one:

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Composographs, forerunners of photo manipulation, were retouched photographic collages popularized by publisher and physical culture advocate Bernarr Macfadden in his New York Evening Graphic. The Graphic was dubbed “The Porno-Graphic” by critics of the time and has been called “one of the low points in the history of American journalism.” The images were cut and pasted together using the heads or faces of current celebrities, glued onto staged images created by employees in Macfadden’s in-house studio. (Image: dhtinshakerheights.blogspot.com, Text: Wikipedia)

The story was featured in newspapers across the country, including reports of Peaches’ testimony regarding her husband’s odd sexual behavior and the fact that he kept an African goose in their bedroom. According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Don’t be a goof,” which Browning allegedly used to insult Peaches, came into national vogue, and later turned up in the lyrics of the song “On Your Toes,” by Rodgers and Hart.

In the end, the judge ruled that Peaches had abandoned her husband without cause, and released Browning from the marriage. She was however awarded a $6,000 “widow’s portion” when Browning died in 1934.

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Peaches in her vaudeville days. (travsd.wordpress.com)

According to Lee, Peaches pursued a successful career in vaudeville, “had an affair with Milton Berle,” would marry and divorce three more times, and would become an alcoholic. On August 23, 1956, her mother heard a crashing sound in the bathroom of their New York City apartment and found Peaches unconscious with a large contusion above her ear. She was dead at 46.

If you want to read more about this strange coupling, Michael Greenburg has written a bookPeaches and Daddy: A Story of the Roaring 20s, the Birth of Tabloid Media, and the Courtship that Captured the Hearts and Imaginations of the American Public.

And so on to the rest of the issue…

“Profiles” featured Theodore Dreiser, whom Waldo “Search-light” Frank dubbed “the martyr of the American Novel” and a “heroic warrior against legions of a commercial and Puritan world.”

“The Talk of the Town” offered this postscript on the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” observing that the small Tennessee town was suffering a bit of hangover (and attendant humiliation) from all of the trial publicity:

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“Sports of the Week” covered the annual “Dog Show of the Consolidated Hamptons,” featuring illustrations by Johan Bull:

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In her column, “When Nights Are Bold,” Lois Long offered the Montmartre as a venue for summer entertaining:

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“Music” featured a brief review of Mayor Hylan’s “free people’s concert,” Aida, at Ebbett’s Field, taking the usual shots at the mayor’s grasping attempts at publicity:

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Program promoting Mayor Hylan’s public operas and other services from August 1925

“Moving Pictures” peered between fingers at Tod Browning’s latest picture, The Unholy Three (Yes, that’s the same Tod Browning who would go on to direct Dracula with Bela Lugosi in 1931 and the creepy 1932 cult classic, Freaks):

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Lon Chaney and friend in The Unholy Three (1925) (Alamo Drafthouse)

Sweet dreams!

Next time, more horseplay, and another jab at the mayor:

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Bryan’s Planet of the Apes

Leading up to the famous Tennessee “Monkey Trial” of John Scopes, the June 13 issue of The New Yorker continued its jabs at William Jennings Bryan.

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June 13, 1925 cover by Barbara Shermund (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Bryan had agreed to serve as prosecutor in the case against Scopes, who was charged on May 5, 1925, with teaching evolution from a chapter in Civic Biology, a textbook by George William Hunter that among other things described the theory of evolution. For the record, Scopes, who was merely a substitute high school teacher, wasn’t even sure if he’d actually taught evolution in his class, but purposely incriminated himself so the trial would proceed with a defendant. Just in case New Yorker readers needed more evidence that Bryan was an ignorant rube, “Talk of the Town” led off with an item on WJB’s visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)
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Bryan as depicted by Rea Irvin in June 7th’s “Talk of the Town”.

Bryan was also the subject of a “Profile” piece by Charles Willis Thompson, who wrote “the Commoner” is “an extensively misunderstood man.”

Thompson observed that Bryan “is variously regarded as a statesman, chump, shrewd politician, bigot, liberal, scholar, knight, orator, reformer, crank and crusader who has fetched up short of his goal because of a chevalier-like hesitancy to sacrifice principle for expediency.”

Here is the piece in its entirety:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)
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Macfadden at age 65 in the early 1930s (yousearch)

The New Yorker was barely afloat as it entered its first summer, but that didn’t dampen its wit as it fished for new subscribers through humorous full page ads regularly featured in the first issues.

The June 13 issue opened with one such ad that appears to be a parody of a Bernarr Macfadden health and fitness promotion (Macfadden was an influential predecessor to the likes of Charles Atlas and Jack Lalanne). The ad was accompanied by a strange drawing that appears to combine McFadden’s body with–for some reason–William Jennings Bryan’s head:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

In addition to Mr. Bryan, “Talk of the Town” also offered these observations…Calvin Coolidge’s fondness for his battered felt hat…the modesty of the young golfing star Bobby Jones and his refusal to accept any money beyond barest expenses for an exhibition match at Harvard…an offer by the famed violinist Jascha Heifetz to deliver, upon his return trip from Paris, a Poiret-designed gown for opera singer Cobina Wright for her upcoming Bal Harbor engagement…and a minor money dispute between George Bernard Shaw and the Saturday Evening Post regarding the reprinting of a short story.

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Sherwood Anderson (Chicago History Museum)

“Talk” also made hay about “Male Plumage” on display in the city, noting that the last time novelist Sherwood Anderson was in town (he is referred to as “the illustrious revealer of the Middle Western Subconscious”) he wore socks “of a particularly glowing brown bespread with diamond checks of an exceptionally vivid shade of green,” and he sported both brown and red feathers in his brown velour hat. It was noted, however, that this display was outdone by Rudolph Valentino, whose silk house pajamas (worn while receiving visitors at the Plaza in Paris) were of “the most vivid crimson ever accomplished.”

The New Yorker continued its assault on crooked cab drivers with this cartoon by Miguel Covarrubias:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Of All Things” (written by Howard Brubaker) noted that “The Queen of Rumania and the King of Swat (Babe Ruth) are both writing for the World, but fortunately for us constant readers, low-born newspaper men are still on the job.” It was also noted that silent film idol Mary Pickford “has fallen among bad characters or good press agents.” I have no idea what this refers to. Pickford was married to film star Douglas Fairbanks at the time, and their Hollywood mansion Pickfair was the center of the celebrity universe. The couple played host to heads of state and other dignitaries as well as notables in literature, the arts, and science (Albert Einstein once paid a call).

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Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1925. Pickford, a Canadian-American actress, was one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a key figure in shaping today’s Hollywood. The couple formed the independent United Artists along with D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. (Getty Images/Hulton Archive/Stringer)

German cinema regularly drew favorable reviews in The New Yorker, however Fritz Lang’s Siegfried was called long and arty, “possessing many fine intervals of real beauty…that usually wins the critical adjectives. The average audience will probably be a bit bored at Siegfried’s quest. Tom Mix does this sort of thing with much more verve and snap.”

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Colleen Moore in the silent film, The Desert Flower (1925) (IMDB)

And if you think the “Cinderella” story has been made and remade too many times, consider that in 1925 The New Yorker already found the theme wearing thin. A review of the The Desert Flower referred to the film as “just another variation of the Cinderella theme.” It told the story of a waif (Colleen Moore) in a railroad construction in camp who falls in love with the son of the railroad’s president. The reviewer wrote that “probably all of this will be popular. It always has been.”

Texas Guinan’s new club proved a be hit, as reported in the feature “When Nights Are Bold.” I last reported on Texas Guinan in my March 18, 2015 post, “A Dry Manhattan,” when prohibition officials put a padlock on her old haunt, the El Fey Club. As we see, things are looking up for the leading lady of New York nightlife:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

I am guessing this an attempt to fill ad space and encourage readership. I guess we will find out soon enough:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

The issue closes with a satirical piece that appears to poke fun at tenement life, or perhaps at the pretensions of art critics, or both. You be the judge:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And finally, a new back page sponsor, in color:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Of Queens and Cold Cream

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June 6, 1925 cover by Julian de Miskey (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The June 6, 1925 “Talk of the Town” was jumble of odds and ends. There were musings on William Randolph Hearst’s indecision over a redesign of his Cosmopolitan magazine (to incorporate the defunct Hearst’s Magazine), and an update on “the Queen of Rumania”…”persuaded by Miss Zoe Beckley to write that series of articles for her newspaper which are appearing currently, in this city, in the World. Her Majesty also received a tidy piece of money for endorsing, under the royal signature, a certain facial cream much favored by young ladies ion the great Middle West, where men are men.”

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The “Queen of Rumania” and her Pond’s endorsement were featured in this April 1925 ad in Motion Picture magazine. See my blog post on Issue #4 titled “The Queen of Romania” to learn more about this enterprising monarch. (Image scan)

“Talk” reported that the facial cream company (Ponds) was approaching other notables for endorsements: “Alice Roosevelt, known in some circles as Mrs. Nicholas Longworth, is reported to have succumbed to the lure of the facial cream. The sum mentioned is five thousand dollars. There will be a photograph of Princess Alice and, one hears, a statement of what she owes to the beneficent workings of the cream in question. She will be in good company, for Mrs. Reginald Vanderbilt, Mrs. Marshall Field and Lady Diana Duff-Cooper have appeared already, among others.

Also noted was the closing of Joel’s, “perhaps the last of the older order of restaurants, whose hosts were individuals, not corporations.” Frequent patrons were novelist Booth Tarkington and artist George Luks.

“The Talk of the Town” also featured drawings by Rea Irvin lampooning William Jennings Bryan’s role in the Scopes Trial, but there was no mention of the event in the “Talk” section itself. However, “Of All Things” noted that “Professor Scopes will now sing that popular ballad: ‘The truth I loved in funny Tennessee.’” The next item followed with “It is said that the KKK is a strong element in the Southern anti-evolution fight. One would expect them to fight klanfully for the Jewish tribal legends.”

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Another stand-alone, full-page illustration depicted Tennessee as a dark jungle:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

“Profiles” featured Deems Taylor, who was dubbed “Versatility Personified” for his work as both a music critic and gifted composer, among other talents. According to Wikipedia, Taylor’s operas were given more performances by the Metropolitan Opera than any other American composer (including his 1927 work The King’s Henchman, with libretto by Edna St. Vincent Millay).

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Deems Taylor on the cover of Time, Feb, 16, 1931 (ACME/P&A)

Taylor was well-known to New Yorker editors and writers as a friend of the Algonquin Round Table, and briefly dated Dorothy Parker. He was also friends with composers George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. He later appeared in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia as the master of ceremonies, and helped select pieces for the film’s musical score.

The New Yorker was seemingly hitting a rough patch as it entered its fifth month. The thin 16th issue (just 24 pages plus cover) reveals the editors still fiddling with the magazine’s format, including an odd new section titled “Critique” that looked variously at happenings in theater, motion pictures, art, music and books—apparently an attempt to consolidate all of these formerly separate sections into one. There was yet another reference to writer Michael Arlen, the magazine characterizing him as an author of light entertainments and thrillers whose best book was These Charming People.

It is noteworthy how much ink the writer Michael Arlen commands in the pages of early New Yorker, considering how little known he is today. And this was at the same time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was receiving tepid reviews, including a brief one in The New Yorker.