We Americans

One of the challenges in researching old New Yorker magazines is the frequent use of pseudonyms or simple initials at the end of columns and reviews. With enough digging I can usually determine the nom behind the plume.

April 7, 1928 cover by Rea Irvin.

Such is not the case with the New Yorker’s film critic of the late 1920s, who signed reviews “O.C.” It would be good to know a little about this person, since he or she held strong opinions about the condition of American cinema. I will continue to dig.

O.C.’s review in the April 7, 1928 issue concerned the release of We Americans, a film based on a Broadway play of the same name. Directed by Edward Sloman, it focused on the trials and tribulations of three first-generation American families: The Jewish Levines, the German Schmidts and the Italian Albertinis. The film followed each family through trial, tribulation and sacrifice as they left behind the Old World and joined the great “Melting Pot.”

In one of the storylines, the Levines lose a son, Phil, to the wartime trenches of France. In losing his life, Phil saves the life of the socially prominent Hugh Bradleigh, who in the end falls in love with Phil’s sister, Beth. In the film’s sentimental ending, the Levines and the Bradleighs meet one another for the first time at wedding of Hugh and Beth.

O.C. would have none of it:

CHEESE MELT…Lobby card for We Americans (1928). (flickr.com)

Yes, this picture got under the reviewer’s skin. Now for the coup de grace:

Over in the book review section, Dorothy Parker was also experiencing heartburn over the latest work of that all-American man of letters, Sinclair Lewis.

BABBITT BABBLE…Sinclair Lewis circa 1925. At right, dust jacket from The Man Who Knew Coolidge. (Getty/yesterdaysgallery.com)

Now that Parker had our attention regarding her misgivings of the future Nobel Laureate, she abandoned the polite prose and went in for the kill:

Wooden as the plaque itself

The New Yorker’s Lindbergh watch continued, this time at a ceremony during which the Woodrow Wilson Foundation presented its medal and $25,000 prize to Charles Lindbergh for his “contributions to international friendship” (in retrospect an ironic award, since Lindbergh would later become the spokesman for isolationism during the fascist terrors of the 1930s). The ceremony was a dull affair, but thanks to the magic of media it no doubt looked like a jolly time…

Better than iTunes

An invention from the late 1890s, piano rolls proved to be a popular diversion in the 1920s, so popular in fact that they warranted a regular review in the New Yorker, along with records and sheet music:

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL…Top and center: Ampico player-piano rolls from the late 1920s. Bottom, a 1928 Irvington Player Piano. (Ebay/YouTube)

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Our Advertisers

One of the more curious series of advertisements to appear in the early New Yorker were these from the Chicago Tribune. Shameless in their boosterism, these ran during the editorship of Col. Robert R. McCormick, who was strongly associated with old right-wing politics and isolationist movements. The Tribune’s motto at this time was “The American Paper for Americans.”

Another ad that caught my eye was this one for Johnnie Walker cigarettes…I guess you’d better listen when a giant hand reaches down from the heavens and taps you on the shoulder. I love the resigned look on the face of his companion: “Oh dear, it’s that dreadful hand again…”

And finally, our cartoon, courtesy Peter Arno…

Next Time: Will Wonders Never Cease?

 

Fun With Harold

The Nov. 6, 1926 issue of The New Yorker was actually two issues, one for the newsstands and subscribers and the other a rare parody issue privately published and presented to founding editor Harold Ross on his 34th birthday.

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The cover of the “official” issue (left) for November 6, 1926, was illustrated by William Troy, the parody issue by Rea Irvin.

The parody issue’s cover featured a silhouette of Ross (drawn by Rea Irvin, as “Penaninsky”) in the pose of dandy Eustace Tilley, looking at spider bearing a strong resemblance to Alexander Woollcott, an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker who first met Ross overseas when the two worked on the fledgling Stars and Stripes newspaper.

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Alexander Woollcott and Harold Ross (Britannica; Jane Grant Collection, University of Oregon)

Ralph Barton’s contribution to the parody issue…

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(From About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, By Ben Yagoda)

…and an unsigned contribution that took a poke at Ross’s efforts to create efficient procedures at the magazine’s office:

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Excerpt from Defining New Yorker Humor, by Judith Yaross Lee

In the other Nov. 6 issue, “The Talk of the Town” editors commented on the death of the famed magician Harry Houdini:

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ONE OF HIS FINAL ACTS…Houdini appearing before a Senate committee to expose fake spiritualists in February 1926. (Granger.com)

“Talk” also noted a new book called Elmer Gantry was being penned by Sinclair Lewis:

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The book was a biting satire of the hypocrisy of fanatical preachers during the 1920s. It created a public furor when it was published in 1927. Another “Talk” item mocked the taste of wealthy New Yorkers for the latest exotic gadgets…

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…but the same issue was also filled with the usual advertisements appealing to those very same desires of the “Smart” set. Here’s a couple of gems, so to speak…

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Next Time: The Cotton Club & Other Distractions…

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Summertime Blues

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July 18, 1925 cover by H.O. Hofman

“The Talk of the Town” welcomed midsummer by noting the changes in the “new Summer Social Register…A long, slow swing of the same pendulum-like power which shifts the vogue in night clubs and restaurants is the migration to inland resorts…The Hamptons have fallen off, Newport has weakened and of the coasts only New England, boasting ‘the prestige of the Summer White House,’ has held its own.”

It was thought that perhaps financial pressures on waterfront acreage “had added zeros to the 400” and “The fragments of our battered conservatives turn and twist uneasily, seeking readjustment, new barriers (translation: old money responds to the invasion of new money).

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There goes the neighborhood…

This siege on the sanctity of “the 400” – a reference to the number limited to Mrs. John Jacob Astor’s social circle  – included the appearance of “scanty” bathing suits on Southampton beaches:

Screenshot 2015-05-18 09.40.58Corroborative evidence of the storming of the conservative fortresses by Undesirables comes with Southampton’s latest protest against scanty bathing costumes, “usually worn by strangers.”

Just what these costumes were or were not, the Southampton Bathing Corporation did not say, but they ruled that stockings and cape must be worn “while walking down to the water.” This ordinance to apply “especially at week-ends and during tennis week.

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Arrowhead Inn Dining Terrace (Museum of the City of New York)

Beginning with this issue, the “When Nights Are Bold” feature was passed from Charles Baskerville (pen name “Top Hat”) to the newly hired Lois Long (pen name “Lipstick”). In her first column for The New Yorker, Long suggested that for those “who can get out of town at will,” the Arrowhead Inn “up Riverdale way” and high on a bluff above the Hudson, was a popular destination for dining and dancing, even if the dancing crowd left something to be desired:

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Another recommended Hudson River location was the Claremont (but alas, no dancing!), while for those staying in the city, Long recommended the Embassy Club at 695 Fifth Avenue.

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Lois Long at work in the early 1920s (walloffemmes.org)

According to Here At The New Yorker by Brendan Gill, Long chronicled nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing for The New Yorker, and because her readers did not know who she was, she often jested in her columns about being a “short squat maiden of forty” or a “kindly, old, bearded gentleman.” However, in the announcement of her marriage to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno, she revealed her true identity.

Harold Ross hired Long in the summer of 1925 as part of a group of “saviors” he hoped would help boost his struggling magazine. The group included Arno, Katharine Angell, managing editor Ralph Ingersoll, and cartoonist Helen Hokinson.

Although she was a favorite of Ross’s, the two couldn’t be more different, as historian Joshua Zeitz explains in Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (2006), Long knew just how to embarrass the girl-shy editor, and loved to do it:

(Ross) was a staid and proper Midwesterner, and she was absolutely a wild woman. She would come into the office at four in the morning, usually inebriated, still in an evening dress and she would, having forgotten the key to her cubicle, she would normally prop herself up on a chair and try to, you know, in stocking feet, jump over the cubicle usually in a dress that was too immodest for Harold Ross’ liking. She was in every sense of the word, both in public and private, the embodiment of the 1920s flapper. And her readers really loved her.

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Julia Lydig Hoyt in 1922 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Talk” also reported that Mrs. (Julia Lydig) Hoyt had “very nearly arrived,” and was capitalizing on her stage career through endorsements for cold creams and articles on social etiquette. “The motion picture industry and stage know her and now she is a designer at highest salary ever paid to an American.”

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Last Call…A rather dour-looking crowd at a New York City bar moments before midnight, June 30, 1919, when Prohibition went into effect. (Library of Congress Archives)

Prohibition continued to dampen the spirits (pun intended) of New Yorkers, particularly during the summer season. The editors noted that of 36 random summer reminiscences submitted to the magazine, eighteen were “direct references to alcoholic concoctions and all but a few theatrical recollections directly suggested indulgence. Then the editors offered their own wistful recollections:

Of course we remember “The Doctor’s cocktails” mixed by the “Commissioner” at the Astor…the highball sign at Forty-second and Broadway…the “Old Virginia Mountain” between the acts under the smile of Old King Cole…the Sunday afternoon absinthe drips at the Lafayette…Champagne at the Claremont on a June night…the Manhattan bar at cocktail time…the Ancient and Honorables in the Buckingham bar….the Navy in mufti at Shanley’s…the horseshoe bar at the Waldorf…the blue dawn of the West Forties…

Of course…but why bring that up again? It’s merely driving us down the street to that place that gave us the card last week and the rumor has just reached us that they are back serving Scotch in teacups, accompanied by a large earthenware teapot filled with soda.

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Left, Delmonico Building at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street (photo from The Brickbuilder, 1899), razed in 1925 and replaced by the building at right (Google Maps screen image)

Also lamented was the loss of renown restaurant Delmonico’s, which had been closed for some time (due mostly to alcohol sales lost to Prohibition; its famous rival across the street, Sherry’s, closed in 1919 for the same reason) but was now yielding to the wrecking ball: “Possibly, Delmonico’s might have been saved as a tradition, but finances and the changes of Fifth Avenue’s complexion forbade…Now we are to see yet another skyscraper, this one on the site where once they dined; where once they danced; across the street from old Sherry’s, long since a bank; orchestraed only by adding machines.”

“The Talk of the Town” concluded with a price list for various bootleg spirits, a feature that would continue through the Prohibition:

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Fresh off his dismantling of those clod-kickers in Chicago, Ben Hecht continued his dyspeptic tirade on the America that lay beyond Gotham, specifically attacking its love of the “Pollyanna twaddle flow” of entertainment from Hollywood:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Ralph Barton, on the other hand, offered of a view of the entire earth, from the vantage point of a Martian observer:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

In “Profiles,” Waldo Frank (writing under the pen-name “Searchlight”) looked askance at the life and work of writer Sinclair Lewis.

Screenshot 2015-05-18 10.35.12Frank offered these observations: “Once upon a time, America created a man-child in her own image…

There’s a strange thing about America. She is passionately in love with herself, and is ashamed of herself…Here was a dilemma, Could not her self be served up to America in such a way that she could love herself—and save her shame? Sinclair Lewis, true American son, was elect to solve it.”

And for those rising young men who did not wish to mix with the unwashed during the summer social season, membership to the Allerton Club Residences was recommended in this back page advertisement:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And yes, the Scopes Monkey Trial is still on the minds of the editors:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

And finally, to close out with a beach theme, a two-page illustration from “The Talk of the Town” section, an early work by illustrator Peggy Bacon:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

Next time, lots of horseplay:

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Mr. and Mrs. Little Tramp

Screenshot 2015-03-17 12.29.14“Charlie Chaplin is in trouble again.” So began the next item in “The Talk of the Town” for the March 21 issue.

Over his head hangs a sword that was forged in the Californian sunshine of the cold metal that entered the souls of the native sons when they lived in Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. It is the sword of righteousness, the flaming blade of moral indignation.

The New Yorker, in its modesty of the times, refers to the “trouble” as Chaplin’s home life, which “has been a trifle irregular.” The magazine was referring to his sudden and secretive marriage to a much younger woman, Lillita McMurray.

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Charlie Chaplin and Lita Grey (The Artifice)

According to the website The Artifice, Lillita McMurray was Chaplin’s second and youngest wife (he had four in all). In 1920 McMurray landed a small role as a “flirting angel” in Chaplin’s The Kid. When she landed another small role in The Gold Rush four years later (changing her name to Lita Grey) a serious relationship between Grey and Chaplin developed. Grey, just barely 16, soon became pregnant, and Chaplin, seeking to prevent scandal (and possible criminal charges), secretly married Grey in Mexico (She gave birth soon after to Charles Chaplin Jr. on May 5, 1925).

Not surprisingly, Chaplin was uncooperative with the story-hungry media, which The New Yorker noted took revenge by casting Grey as a innocent victim of a “rapacious roué.”

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The 12-year old Lillita McMurray (later Lita Grey) in The Kid (1921) (Image from the flickchick1953 blog A Person in the Dark)

The The New Yorker noted that the California Women’s Clubs called for a boycott of Chaplin films, and even the famed L.A. theatre proprietor Sid Graumann bowed to their pressure and cancelled his booking for The Gold Rush (which the “Talk” writer calls an “extraordinarily good comedy”).

The magazine observed that it was the goal of Chaplin’s detractors to drive him out of the movies—“That way lies Fatty Arbuckle” (alluding to sex scandal that destroyed the career of one of the most beloved silent film stars three years earlier).

A footnote: Chaplin’s marriage to Grey soon crumbled, and a divorce was granted August 22, 1927. According to The Artifice, it was a bitter, public ordeal with rumors of affairs and sexual misconduct clouding Chaplin’s fame and reputation. In the end, Grey was awarded a massive $600,000 settlement and $100,000 for each child. After the scandal Grey became reclusive and was featured in only a few small films before her death on Dec. 29, 1995.

Another item of note in the March 21 issue: a review Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis (“good, but not as good as Babbitt”).

And how about a little cartoon to end our segment on the March 21, 1925 issue:

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)