Rooftop Romance

In the days before air conditioning, New Yorkers took to the higher rooftops in the city to escape the summer heat and reconnect with familiar entertainers.

June 6, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt. The title image is a detail from a Sept. 5, 1970 cover by Arthur Getz.

Among those reconnecting was Lois Long, who had abandoned her nightlife column “Tables for Two” the previous year but revived it in the June 6, 1931 issue, perhaps in reaction to the “boundless trouble” that had marched into her “quiet life,” namely her bitter divorce that month from cartoonist Peter Arno. Soon to be single again, Long dusted off her “Table” for another night out.

PRE-AC…As far back as the Gilded Age of the 19th century New Yorkers escaped the summer heat by seeking entertainment on one of the city’s rooftop gardens. Pictured is the Paradise roof garden atop Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, 1901. (MCNY)

THE BUCK STARTS HERE…It wasn’t a rooftop, but the Central Park Casino was a cool retreat from city streets, especially for Mayor Jimmy Walker, who conducted much of city business there (much of it shady). After reform-minded Mayor Fiorello La Guardia replaced Walker in 1934, he had the place torn down. (New York City Parks Photo Archive)
I COULD HAVE DANCED ALL NIGHT…Mayor Jimmy Walker and his mistress, showgirl Betty Compton, were often the last to leave the Casino in the wee hours of the morning, dancing in the black-glass ballroom (above) to the Leo Reisman Orchestra. (drivingfordeco.com)

Higher up in the city, Long also paid a visit to the elegant rooftop of the St. Regis, designed by the famed architect and theatrical designer Joseph Urban

DAZZLING…The St. Regis rooftop, designed by Joseph Urban.
ANOTHER VIEW of the St. Regis rooftop as illustrated in the July 7, 1928 issue of the New Yorker by Alice Harvey. 

Long also visited the roof of the 42-story Hotel Pierre. The New York Sun described the top two floors as “decorated to resemble the interior of a zeppelin cabin.”

THE COOLEST…Top of the Hotel Pierre. A popular summer ballroom in the years before air-conditioning, the Pierre advertised itself as having “the highest and coolest hotel roof in Manhattan.” (NYT)

If you were in the mood for a little crooning, Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees were taking in the breeze atop the Hotel Pennsylvania, per this ad in the back pages of the June 6 New Yorker

Advertisers must have been paying attention to Long’s column, because the back pages of the following issue (June 13) had plenty of ads touting various rooftops…

Long also sampled the offerings of less savory venues, such as the Club Argonaut, which was apparently frequented by mobsters…

NOT AMUSED…Lois Long didn’t care for the antics of Gene Malin (center, and inset) who performed in front of a tough-looking crowd at the Club Argonaut. A popular drag artist who helped ignite the “Pansy Craze” in the 1920s and 30s, Malin was one of the first openly gay performers in Prohibition-era speakeasy culture. His career ended abruptly at age 25 in a car accident. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Sexy Soviet Tractors

One place you could find an early form of air conditioning was at the movies (critic John Mosher referred to these theatres as “iced), and no doubt many lowered their cinematic standards just to get a few hours respite from the heat. For some unknown reason the Central Theatre thought it could entice audiences not with air-conditioning, but with a Soviet propaganda film titled The Five-Year Plan.

STAY CALM AND CARRY ON…Soviet poster for The Five Year Plan (1930), and a 1930 image of the Volograd (Stalingrad) tractor factory. You wonder how many of those blokes got wiped out by Stalin’s purges, or by the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Laughing at Death

A couple of posts ago I wrote about a very public gun battle that brought diminutive killer Frances Crowley to justice (“The Short Life of Two-Gun Crowley”). In the June 6 installment of “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey recounted the courtroom scene where the 18-year-old Crowley winked at girls and nonchalantly chewed his gum as judge and jury determined his fate.

OH WELL…Frances Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, left, was positively bored during the trial that would send her beau to Sing Sing’s electric chair. Crowley himself (shown above at the trial) seemed to be amused by the proceedings, and enjoyed the attention. (NY Daily News)

Markey also noted the unseemly behavior of Crowley’s 16-year-old girlfriend, Helen Walsh, who seemed bored by the whole thing. “She was not a creature of your world or of mine,” wrote Markey, who noted at one point that she put her hands to her face “to conceal a faint smile that sprang from some incalculable amusement within her.” Markey offered this sample of Walsh’s questioning.

 *  *  *

Summer Frost

Novelist and poet Raymond Holden penned a profile of famed poet Robert Frost, who among things apparently enjoyed apples and a bit of gossip. A brief excerpt:

 *  *  *

Dead Ball

E. B. White lamented in his “Notes and Comment” the changes to the official golf ball, which was to be made slower in a time when Depression-weary businessmen could use a little lift:

GET ‘EM WHILE THEY LAST…This 1930 golf ball, signed by golf legend Bobby Jones, can be yours for $15,000 on eBay.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Gender-bending trends in clothing continued from the 1920s with flowing trousers for women (unthinkable a decade earlier)…

…and beach pajamas for men and women alike…

…Buick dialed up a patrician vibe with this ad that suggested a posh boy might be transported in one by the family’s driver…

…and this might be one of the first ads that linked cigarette smoking to the myth of the Western cowboy…

…on to our cartoons, we begin out in the country with Perry Barlow

…and Kemp Starrett, with this charming bucolic scene…

…back in the drawing room, we have this canine encounter from Leonard Dove

Helen Hokinson explored the violent side of bridge…

Barbara Shermund went into the garden to sample the trials of the rich…

Carl Rose pondered the art of grammar in crowded places…

Chon Day gave us yet another take on the familiar boss vs secretary trope…

…and Gardner Rea gets the last laugh with this hapless prodigal son…

Next Time: A Star is Born…

 

Requiem For the Flapper

The Vassar-educated Lois Long was an icon of the flapper generation and a reigning voice — witty and smart — of New York nightlife in the Roaring Twenties.

Jan. 10, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

In one of her early “Tables for Two” columns, the famously hard-partying Long made this request of her New Yorker readers: “Will someone do me a favor a get me home by eleven sometime? And see that nobody gives a party while I am catching up? I do so hate to miss anything.”

DONT START THE PARTY WITHOUT ME…Carefree days at your neighborhood speakeasy. (Manchester’s Finest)

By the dawn of 1931 few were in the mood for a party, including the 29-year-old Long, who was mother to a toddler and would soon divorce husband and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno.

But it wasn’t motherhood or a tempestuous marriage that soured Long on the party scene. Rather, blame fell to the whiny, self-absorbed crowd that had displaced her fun-loving Jazz Age revelers. In the Jan. 10, 1931 issue Long began to assess the decade ahead in a six-part series titled “Doldrums.” The first installment, “Bed of Neuroses,” suggests Long missed the joie de vivre that characterized the previous decade:

“It is all so discouraging; so very, very, sad. Six million people in New York, and apparently no one in the white-collar class who can lose himself for a moment in the ecstasy of a roller-coaster. Six million people in New York, and every one of them a curious little study in maladjustment. Thousands of young men who own dinner jackets, and I am always drawing someone who makes scenes in public because he once had a little cat that died and he has never got over it.”

With that, Long’s partying days were officially over. Some excerpts from “Bed of Neuroses”…

SALAD DAYS…Clockwise, from top left, Lois Long relaxing on the beach in a image captured from a 1920s home movie; silent film star Charlie Chaplin, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, sculptor Helen Sardeau, Lois Long and screenwriter Harry D’Arrast pose in a Coney Island photo booth, 1925; Long with husband Peter Arno and daughter Patricia, 1929; Long at the office in a classic flapper pose, circa 1925. (PBS/Joshua Zeitz/Patricia Long/Wikipedia)

Long recalled the days when one could hold his or her liquor…

There has been a trend among the bright young drinkers toward a glass of sherry before meals instead of cocktails, a bottle of wine during dinner, port with the cheese, a liqueur with the coffee — instead of one highball after another.

…and when one’s personal hang-ups remained personal, and were not subject to tedious public display:

Long’s nightlife column, “Tables for Two” folded a few months after the 1929 stock market crash, but she would continue to make unsigned contributions to the “Comments” and “The Talk of the Town” sections into the 1950s. Her main focus at the magazine, however, would be her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” which she would write until 1968. Upon her death in 1974, New Yorker editor William Shawn remarked that Long “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.”

 *  *  *

The Age of Giants

Architecture critic George S. Chappell took in the grandeur of the nearly completed Empire State Building, which rose from the rubble of the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel and perhaps more than any building served as a giant exclamation point for the 20th century metropolis. Chappell did not buy developers’ claims regarding the building’s “mooring mast,” calling it a “silly gesture” that the building would have been better served without. Looking back from our time, however, it is hard to imagine the building without its distinctive spire:

DIZZY HEIGHTS…Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building stood as the world’s tallest until 1970. Clockwise, from top left, New Yorker critic George Chappell viewed the “mooring mast” as a publicity stunt, and believed the building would have been better without it; interior of the building at its grand opening in May 1931; ground-level view of the setbacks Chappell admired; the completed tower in 1931. (lajulak.org/AP/Acme/Pinterest)

Chappell also made note of a neo-Georgian style building designed by Joseph Freedlander for the Museum of the City of New York:

HISTORY’S HOME…The main facade of the Museum of the City of New York facing Fifth Avenue. (Wikipedia)

*  *  *

Ignoble Deeds

“The Talk of the Town” looked in on some aging veterans of the 19th century “Indian Wars” and found the old coots reminiscing about the massacre of various North American tribes…

NO HARD FEELINGS?…Crow warrior White Man Runs Him poses with 82-year-old Gen. Edward Settle Godfrey, a survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, at the 50th Anniversary of the battle in 1926. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

Cheeky

E.B. White assumed the nom de plume “Eustace Tilley” to answer an earnest query letter from Leslie Fulenwider of Famous Features Syndicate. Fulenwider probably didn’t know what he was in for…

ALTER EGO…E.B. White periodically assumed the role of New Yorker mascot Eustace Tilley in handling magazine correspondence.

 *  *  *

Too Cool for School

In his weekly art gallery column, Murdock Pemberton noted the New Year’s Day opening of the New School for Social Research in a “timid landmark” designed by Joseph Urban of theatrical design fame. The school’s boardroom featured a series of murals by realist painter Thomas Hart Benton.

NEW LOOK FOR NEW SCHOOL…Joseph Urban’s interpretation of the International Style for the New School for Social Research at 66 West 12th Street.
AMERICAN TABLEAU…Three panels from Thomas Hart Benton’s ten-panel mural, America Today. Originally installed in the New School’s boardroom, it is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (charlesmcquillen.com) click image to enlarge

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

“If you’re to be among this season’s southbound fortunates,” as this ad begins, you’ll want to check out these Bradley bathing suits designed for a variety of privileged personalities…

…but before you hit the beach, you might consider an “Ardena Bath”  to take away some of that winter fat…

…this 1932 illustration (below) demonstrates how a full-body, Ardena paraffin wax bath works. An Elizabeth Arden advertisement described the procedure thus: You step into a tub lined with waxed paper. Over you they pour a warm liquid paraffin which slowly hardens until you are encased in a paraffin shell. Your face becomes pink. You are permeated in a sense of well-being. Suddenly, the perspirations bursts from you, for the shell forms a vacuum which causes the pores to open and, consequently, impurities are drawn away…

…on to our cartoons, we have two from William Steig, who produced 2,600 drawings and 117 covers for the New Yorker and whose work would span two centuries, delighting both adults and children alike, most notably the picture book Shrek! that would lead to a hugely successful movie series. According to The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet, “after the release of Shrek 2 in 2004, Steig became the first sole-creator of an animated movie franchise that went on to generate over $1 billion from theatrical and ancillary markets after only one sequel.”

Here is Steig’s first New Yorker cartoon, from the Aug. 9, 1930 issue:

…and back to the Jan. 10, 1931 issue, in which Steig offered these glimpses into city life (note how his style had become more refined since that first cartoon)…

…and then have a look into the posh set from New Yorker stalwart Helen Hokinson

…some bedside manner with Leonard Dove

Peter Arno continued to explore the complexities of love…

…and Gardner Rea showed us the softer side of a hardened criminal…

…and before we close I want to bring to your attention to this wonderful New Yorker parody that Peter Binkley recently shared with me. Binkley writes that the Dec. 20, 1930 cover “was the model for a parody issue that friends of my grandparents in the Village made for them when they visited for the holidays. My grandparents had lived in New York for a couple of years but moved away in 1929. They and this group of friends lived in the same building on Morton St., and were fervent New Yorker readers. The parody is interesting, I think, for giving a glimpse of what New Yorker fans below the top-hat-wearing class enjoyed about it at the time.”

Below, left, is the cover of the Dec. 30 issue by Constantin Alajalov, and next to it the terrific parody cover.

…and a couple of the interior pages, with parodies of cartoons by Peter Arno and John Held Jr….

You can check out the full parody issue here.

Next Time: Rise of the Gangster Film…

The Little King

Like his New Yorker colleague Reginald Marsh, Otto Soglow trained in the “Ashcan School” of American art, and his early illustrations favored its gritty urban realism. He had his own life experience to draw upon, being born to modest means in the Yorkville district of Manhattan.

We look at two issues this week. At left, cover of March 31 issue by Peter Arno; at right, June 7 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

But Soglow (1900-1975) would soon abandon the gritty style in the work he contributed to the New Yorker…

RAGS TO RICHES…At left, Otto Soglow’s first cartoon in the New Yorker, Nov. 14, 1925, was rendered in the Ashcan style ; at right, an example of the sparer style he later adopted, one of his manhole series cartoons from March 2, 1929.

…and in the June 7, 1930 issue, Soglow would publish his first Little King strip, which would soon launch the 29-year-old into fame and fortune…

Did Soglow know he was on to something big with that first Little King cartoon? Well Harold Ross (New Yorker founding editor) liked what he saw, and asked Soglow to produce more. After building up an inventory over nearly 10 months, Ross finally published a second Little King strip on March 14, 1931. It soon became a hit, catching the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who wanted the strip for his King Features Syndicate.

KING OF COMEDY…Otto Soglow working on an illustration for The Ambassador, a short-lived comic strip he created in 1933 for King Features Syndicate. The strip was replaced by The Little King in 1934 after Soglow fulfilled his contractual obligation to the New Yorker. (comicartfans.com)

After Soglow fulfilled his contractural obligation to the New Yorker, The Little King made its move to King Features on Sept. 9, 1934, and the strip ran until Soglow’s death in 1975. After his move to King Features, Soglow continued to contribute cartoons to the New Yorker, but with other themes.

Left, Soglow cartoon from the book Wasn’t the Depression Terrible? (1934); at right, King Features strip from Nov. 19, 1967. (Wikipedia/tcj.com)

You can read more about Soglow and The Little King in The Comics Journal.

 *  *  *

The Party’s Definitely Over

During the summer of 1925, a young writer at Vanity Fair named Lois Long would take over the New Yorker’s nightlife column, “When Nights Are Bold,” rename it “Tables For Two,” and set about giving a voice to the fledgling magazine as well as chronicling the city’s Jazz Age nightlife. There were accounts of Broadway actors mingling with flappers and millionaires at nightclubs and speakeasies, but Long also spoke out on issues such as Prohibition, taking the city’s leaders to task for raids on speakeasies and other heavy-handed tactics contrary to the spirit of the times. “Tables For Two” would expire with the June 7, 1930 issue, and appropriately so, as the deepening Depression gave the the city a decidedly different vibe. In her final column Long would write about the Club Abbey, a gay speakeasy operated by mobster Dutch Schultz

PARTIED OUT…In her final nightlife column, Lois Long wrote about the new Club Abbey in the basement of the Hotel Harding (left), which was operated by mobster Dutch Schultz (inset). The club’s emcee was Gene Malin (right), Broadway’s first openly gay drag performer. The club was short-lived (as were Schultz and Malin), closing in January 1931 following a mob brawl. (infamousnewyork.com/Pinterest)

…and she would update her readers on “Queen of the Night Clubs” Texas Guinan, whose Club Intime was sold to Dutch Schultz and replaced by his Club Abbey…

FINAL ACT…Clockwise, from top left, Texas Guinan at Lynbrook, circa 1930; Joseph Urban murals on the rooftop of the St. Regis Hotel; Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the Cotton Club, circa 1930s.

Long’s final nightlife column would signal a definitive end to whatever remained of the Roaring Twenties. It would also signal the end to some of those associated with those heady times. Texas Guinan’s Lynbrook plans would flop, and Gene Malin’s Club Abbey would close in less than a year. Both would both be dead by 1933. As for Dutch Schultz, he would be gunned down in 1935.

Lois Long, however, would continue to write for the New Yorker for another 40 years, and would prove to be as innovative in her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” as she was as a nightlife correspondent.

 *  *  *

Gone to the Dogs

In another installment of his pet advice column (June 7), James Thurber gave us one of his classic dogs…a disinterested bloodhound…

…while Thurber’s buddy and office mate E.B. White commented (in the March 31 issue) on a recent poll conducted among students at Princeton, discovering among other things that New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno was preferred over the old masters…

FAN FAVORITES…The Princeton Class of 1930 named (from left) Rudyard Kipling, Lynn Fontanne and Peter Arno as favorite poet, actress and artist respectively in a student poll. (YouTube/Wikipedia/giam.typepad.com)

 *  *  *

We Like It Fine, Thank You

The New Yorker dedicated a full page of the March 31 issue to a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal directed at the New York Evening Journal, which had reprinted one of Peter Arno’s cartoons to illustrate the moral cost of Prohibition. I believe the author of the rebuttal is E.B. White (note how he refers to Arno as “Mr. Aloe”).

…also in the May 31 issue, Rea Irvin changed things up, at least temporarily, with some new artwork for the “Goings On About Town” section. The entries themselves were often clever, such as this listing for a radio broadcast: PRESIDENT HOOVER—Gettysburg speech. Similar to Lincoln’s but less timely…

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

New Yorker cartoonists can be found throughout the advertisements — from left, Julian De Miskey, Rea Irvin and John Held, Jr

…and in the June 7 issue we find an unusual ad for a used car…a sign of the times, no doubt…

…before it was associated with Germany’s Nazi Party (especially after it seized power in 1933), for thousands of years the swastika had been widely used as a religious or good luck symbol…

…Actress Clara Bow was famously pictured sporting a “good luck” swastika as a fashion statement in this press photo from June 1928, unaware that in a few years the symbol would become universally associated with hate, death and war…

From an unidentified publication dated June 6, 1928. (@JoHedwig/Twitter)

…on to our cartoons, I. Klein illustrated a cultural exchange…

Garrett Price gauged the pain of a plutocrat…

Alan Dunn eavesdropped on some just desserts…

Helen Hokinson found humor in the mouths of babes…

…as did Alice Harvey

Leonard Dove examined one woman’s dilemma at a passport office…

…and Peter Arno, who found some cattiness at ringside…

Next Time: Germany’s Anti-Decor…

 

The Lion Roars

It’s easy to get into the weeds while digging through the New Yorker archives, as it is filled with a richly interconnected cast of characters whose lives and work still resonate with us today.

March 15, 1930 cover by Rose Silver. (Please see note on this artist at the end of this blog entry)

A case in point is Bert Lahr (1895-1967), who at age 15 dropped out of high school and joined the vaudeville circuit, working his way up to top billing in Broadway musical comedies including 1930’s Flying High, which received an enthusiastic welcome from New Yorker critic Charles Brackett

…Brackett enjoyed the “feminine beauty” offered by a George White chorus that included the “Gale Quadruplets,” described in the Playbill as “The only Quadruplets in the world appearing on the stage”…

…although in fact the Gale Quadruplets were actually two sets of twins: June and Jane, and Jean and Joan (real names were Doris, Lenore, Helen and Lorraine Gilmartin). But I digress.

What really caught Brackett’s eye were the antics of Bert Lahr:

ONLY ONE BERT…Clockwise, from top left, publicity photo of Bert Lahr from the 1931 film version of Flying High; cover of the Apollo Theatre Playbill; the Gale Quadruplets, circa 1930; Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. (Everett/Playbill/Pinterest/Wikiwand)

The Gale Quadruplets are long forgotten, but the work of Bert Lahr still lives on thanks to his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (a film, incidentally, that was panned in 1939 by New Yorker critic Russell Maloney, who called it “a stinkeroo” that showed “no trace of imagination, good taste, or ingenuity”).

Lahr also connects us to today’s New Yorker magazine, where his son, John Lahr, has been a staff writer and critic since 1992. Lahr has written a number of stage adaptions (he won a Tony award in 2002, the first drama critic to do so) as well as nearly twenty books, including a 2017 biography of his father, Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr.

DRAMATIC DUO…John Lahr with his father, Bert, backstage at the Belasco Theatre in the late 1940s; John Lahr today. (NY Times/Amazon)

 *  *  *

Greener Pastures

We remain on Broadway with another writer who was deeply connected to the New Yorker’s origins. Marc Connelly (1890-1980) was a playwright, director, producer and performer who collaborated with George S. Kaufman on five Broadway comedies in the 1920s. Connelly was also a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, around which orbited a number of writers, critics and assorted wits who would help bring the New Yorker to life in 1925. Connelly was listed as an advisory editor on the masthead of the very first issue:

Connelly’s play, The Green Pastures (based on stories from the Old Testament), had just opened on Broadway, drawing much acclaim for both Connelly and actor Richard B. Harrison (1864-1935). “The Talk of the Town” looked in on the playwright and the actor:

DID YOU HEAR SOMETHING?...Richard B. Harrison (left) and unidentified actor in 1930’s The Green Pastures. At right, Wesley Hill as the Angel Gabriel. (blackarchives.org/ngv.vic.gov.au)
FINAL BOW…Richard B. Harrison in a 1930 publicity photo for the Broadway play, The Green Pastures. At right, Harrison on the cover of the March 4, 1935, Time magazine. He died of heart failure ten days after appearing on the cover. (Henrietta Alice Metcalf Collection/Time)

Connelly would receive the 1930 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Green Pastures. And nearly 60 years later he would be featured in a 1987 documentary about the Algonquin Round Table (The Ten-Year Lunch) as the Table’s last survivor. It would win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. During his long career Connelly would act in 21 movies, including the 1960 romantic comedy Tall Story with Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins. He also did some TV, included a stint from 1962 to 1964 as Judge Rampell in The Defenders.

HE COULD ACT TOO…Clockwise, from top left, Marc Connelly in a 1937 photo by Carl Van Vechten; a page from the Playbill for The Green Pastures; college student June Ryder (Jane Fonda) collides on campus with Professor Charles Osmond (Marc Connelly) in the 1960 romantic comedy Tall Story. (Wikipedia/Playbill/ridesabike.com)

Also in the “Talk of the Town” section of the March 15 issue was James Thurber’s latest installment of pet advice:

 *  *  *

Lipstick’s Lamentations

Once the place to read about wild speakeasies and other nighttime diversions of the Roaring Twenties, Lois Long’s “Tables for Two” column had quickly become anachronistic in the Depression years. Although the decade was still young, Long reminisced about her column’s “golden days” as if they had existed in some distant time, and lamented the state of the speakeasy; once a place for cheap and sordid frivolity, it had become staid and even snobbish…

THAT WAS THEN…Lois Long lamented the state of the speakeasy in 1930. Once sordid and given to frivolity, it had become a rather staid institution. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org/Time-Life)

…and Long described some of these new upscale speakeasies, where the oilcloth had been replaced with fine linen…

 *  *  *

Ozark Oeuvre

New Yorker art critic Murdock Pemberton, in his ongoing search for America’s best artists, took another look at that once “uncouth native” from the Ozarks, Thomas Hart Benton

PAINTING FROM THE SOIL…Cattle Loading, oil on canvas, by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930. It was one of the works viewed by critic Murdock Pemberton at the Delphic Studios in New York. (wahooart.com)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

We start off with a couple of two-page ads, the first featuring caricatures of George Gershwin and Alexander Woollcott as rendered by the great Miguel Covarrubias

click image to enlarge

…and then we have this ad from the makers of Lux Toilet Soap, who must have had a bottomless advertising budget given all the splashy ads and celebrity endorsements…

…in the ads we also find clashes between the old and new…the new being this art deco-styled appeal for the newest form of transportation…

…and the old, the makers of the luxury car Pierce-Arrow, still harking back to its patrician origins (“The Tyranny of Tradition”)…the firm would not survive the lean years of the 1930s…

…and once again a colorful ad from Church using snob appeal to sell something as pedestrian as a toilet seat…”Toilet Seats For Better Bathrooms”…

…on to our cartoons, we have a voyeur’s perspective courtesy Helen Hokinson

…an exploration of the generation gap by Alice Harvey

…and this terrifically quaint encounter, rendered by Perry Barlow

…and before we go, a note about this week’s cover artist, Lisa Rhana, a.k.a. Rose Silver (1902-1985) who illustrated several New Yorker covers in the 1920s and early 30s. Her work is included in the permanent collections at the Whitney Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which holds this watercolor (left) that graced the cover of the Jan. 30, 1932 issue:

Next Time: Garbo Speaks…

 

 

 

 

Ride of the Century

Train travel in the U.S. was at the height of its glory in the late 1920s—you could hop on train in New York City and travel to virtually anywhere in the country, even to some of the remotest towns in America’s vast hinterlands.

July 27, 1929 cover by Theodore G. Haupt.

The New Yorker’s managing editor, Ralph Ingersoll (1900-1985) writing in “The Talk of Town,” climbed aboard the locomotives of outbound 20th Century and an inbound Empire State trains to survey the latest technology in rail travel. What one gleans from reading this account is how much this mode of travel has declined (in the U.S.) over the past 90 years:

ROMANCE OF THE RAILS…Clockwise, from top left: Hudson locomotives served the Century and Empire State express trains; silent film star Gloria Swanson waves farewell from the observation platform as the Century pulls out of Grand Central during the 1920s; lounge car on the 20th Century Limited during the 1920s; the 20th Century ready to depart Grand Central, circa 1930. (steamlocomotive.com/newyorksocialdiary.com/cruiselinehistory.com)

In terms of speed and safety, it seems little has changed since 1929, and perhaps things have actually gotten worse…

CELEBRATED LINE…The 20th Century was widely celebrated in popular culture through the 1950s. Five years after Ingersoll’s article, Howard Hawks directed the screwball comedy, 20th Century. Clockwise, from top left, the film’s stars, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a scene from the film; the stars pose for a publicity shot; with director Hawks along with some of the cast and crew. (austinfilm.org/greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com)

* * *

From 1928 until his death in 1950, the journalist Alva Johnston (1888-1950) wrote on a diverse range of topics for the New Yorker, including this “Reporter at Large” piece on the proliferation of barrooms in private residences, hidden from the prying eyes of Prohibition agents and sometimes furnished with the bits and pieces that once graced some of New York’s finest watering holes, including the famed Hoffman House:

POPULAR WATERING HOLE…Clockwise, from top left: The Hoffman House Hotel at Madison Square in 1885; the Hoffman House bar, which prominently displayed William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr. According to Alva Johnston’s article, the painting was the second-most popular decorative motif in New York’s finer drinking establishments; artist’s rendering of the barroom; and Bouguereau’s Nymphs and Satyr. (Museum of the City of New York/Wikipedia)

Johnston noted the clever tricks homeowners used to conceal their secret bars:

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER…Alva Johnston described how one library’s walls “had literature on one side, gin and rye on the other.” (Huffington Post)

Johnston concluded his piece on an ironic note, pointing out that the finest cocktail sets could be obtained at Kresge department stores, which were owned by one of the biggest supporters of Prohibition, S.S. Kresge:

 *  *  *

The Sound of Peggy Wood

The Brooklyn-born Peggy Wood (1892-1978) made her stage debut in 1910 and was an established Broadway star before she made her first talking picture, Wonder of Women (a film believed to be lost). A member of the Algonquin Round Table, she was well acquainted with the New Yorker crowd. And the magazine in turn was very impressed with her acting talents, even if the picture she was in proved a bit of a downer:

RECOGNIZE HER NOW?…Clockwise, from top left: theatre card for the 1929 film, Wonder of Women; Leila Hyams and Lewis Stone in a tender moment from the film (for some reason Stone was romantically paired with much younger women in several films around that time); Peggy Wood in the 1920s; Wood as Mother Abbess in 1965’s The Sound of Music; Stone and Wood in a scene from Wonder of Women, with child actor Wally Albright, who was four years old at the time. With his waifish demeanor and curly hair, Albright was highly sought after in films needing a cute kid. He appeared in seven films in 1929 alone. In the 1930s he would appear in several Our Gang/Little Rascal shorts, and would pop up in bit roles through the 1940s and early 50s. Unlike so many other child stars, he seems to have led a normal adult life. He won the Men’s National Track and Ski Championship in 1957, and later started a successful trucking firm. (IMDB/Pinterest)

…the review continued, suggesting that Wood’s acting alone carried the picture…

…if you weren’t into weepers like Wonder of Women, you could have instead checked out The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu at the Rialto Theatre…

LIKE A SIDESHOW ACT…New York’s Rialto Theatre donned a masked front and door entry wrappers for the premiere of The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu; promotional poster; Jean Arthur and Warner Oland in the film. Oland was not the least bit Asian. A Swedish-American actor, his work in the hit film led to three more Fu Manchu movies. Oland would then go on to play another Asian character, Charlie Chan, in a string of popular movies in the 1930s until his death in 1938. (cinematreasures.org)

 * * *

Just Sad

Yet another note in “Talk of the Town” describing the plight of African Americans in segregated America, without a hint of empathy:

Potters Field on Hart Island, New York, circa 1890. (Wikipedia)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Last week B. Altman offered rugged coats for those brave souls riding in rumble seats. This week Altman rolled out some stylish wear for the enterprising pilot of 1929…

…and while you were up there, you could calm those nerves with a Chesterfield (a two-page ad that appeared regularly in the New Yorker)…

,,,back on the ground, the makers of Most toothpaste reminded readers to brush those tobacco stains off their teeth, apparently even while they’re smoking…

…here is another sampling of drawings by Garrett Price, rendered after a recent trip to Paris…

…our cartoons come from Leonard Dove (note the backward signature)…

…here we have A. Edwin Macon’s take on modern furniture…

Helen Hokinson looked in on a visit to an eye doctor…

Perry Barlow’s take on the wonders of radio…

Rea Irvin depicted how timing is everything in an ice delivery…

…and Peter Arno peeked in on habits of the idle rich…

Next Time: The Art of Peace…

 

 

 

 

Queen of the Night Clubs

In the Roaring Twenties, Mary Louise Cecilia—aka Texas Guinan—was the undisputed queen of New York’s boozy, bawdy nightclub and speakeasy scene.

March 23, 1929 cover by Gardner Rea.

During the 1920s Guinan operated one of New York’s most famed speakeasies, The El Fey Club, which attracted the likes of Mayor Jimmy Walker, actors George Raft and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, writers including Ring Larder and Damon Runyon, and gossip columnists Walter Winchell, Mark Hellinger, and Ed Sullivan (yep, the same Ed who later hosted TV’s most famous variety show).

It was still months before the big stock market crash, but in the pages of the New Yorker you could already sense a change in its voice; it was maturing, to be sure, but it also seemed to be growing weary of the party. The magazine’s nightlife correspondent, Lois Long, contributed sporadically to her once-lively “Tables for Two” column (she was now a mother, and would abandon the column altogether in 1930). As for the queen of nightlife, Texas Guinan, New Yorkers were ready for something different.

BEATING THE RAP…In June 1928 Texas Guinan and other New York speakeasy operators were arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury. Guinan beat the rap, and was acquitted in April 1929. (ephemeralness york)

In a review of her latest movie, Queen of the Night Clubs, the New Yorker found that Guinan lacked her famed charm and vitality, and that the camera was “not kind to her looks.”

THE FINAL CURTAIN…Clockwise from top left: Texas Guinan in a nightclub scene from Queen of the Night Clubs; trading lines in the film with John Davidson; a 1929 portrait of Guinan by Cecil Beaton; and a scene from the film with co-star Lila Lee (far right). The film is considered lost. (boweryboyshistory.com/texasguinan.blogspot.com)

The film in many ways marked the end of Texas Guinan, not so much because it was a bad film but because she had simply run her course and was going out of style. The market crash later that year was the final straw. She took her show on the road, made an unsuccessful attempt at a European tour, then returned to the States. She made one final film, Broadway Thru A Keyhole, which was based on a story by Guinan acolyte Walter Winchell. Guinan died on Nov. 5, 1933, three days after the film’s release; her death was due to ulcerative colitis brought on by a case of amoebic dysentery contracted during a visit to Chicago. She was 49. One month later, Prohibition would be repealed.

A final note: Queen of the Night Clubs would be Texas Guinan’s final starring role (the film is considered lost), but before she became a night club fixture she was a popular star in dozens of shorts and two-reelers—with mostly Western themes— from 1917 to 1921.

HAPPIER TRAILS…Texas Guinan featured in a movie poster and publicity photo for The Two-Gun Woman, 1918. (Columbia University)

 *  *  *

A Film of Biblical Proportions

The New Yorker’s May 23 film review also sized up the latest epic to come out of Hollywood—Noah’s Ark—a picture with parallel storylines known mostly for its innovations in special effects.

The film premiered in late 1928 as a silent and was re-released in 1929 as a “part-talkie.” It told the story of Noah and the Great Flood, connected to another story featuring cabaret singers, soldiers and espionage during the First World War. Here is the New Yorker’s take on the film:

IDENTITY CRISES…Various promotional posters touted different aspects of the partial-sound film, Noah’s Ark. The one at left promoted the film’s biblical story, while the one at right played up Dolores Costello’s sex appeal. (IMDB)

The New Yorker concluded that the film was worth seeing for the Noah story’s special effects, despite its attachment to a “dreary and banal” war picture.

DUAL ROLES…Dolores Costello (seated, at left) played both a cabaret dancer, Marie, and Noah’s handmaiden Miriam, in Noah’s Ark. Note in the first photo the actress at far left, with her leg propped up on the chair—that’s Myrna Loy, who would become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 30s and 40s. As for Costello, known as “The Goddess of the Silent Screen,” her greatest success was in the silent era. Click image to enlarge. (1stdibs.com, IMDB)
BIG SHOW…Portions of Noah’s Ark were filmed at the famed Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, including the opening shot that featured a massive ark (top, left) beached on the boulders of the movie ranch’s Garden of the Gods. Other scenes from the film included (moving clockwise, from top right) Paul McAllister as Noah, issuing a warning to the heathen as Noah’s son Japheth (George O’Brien) and servant girl Miriam (Dolores Costello) cower at right; the heathen masses desperately clamoring to board the ark as they are engulfed by the flood (600,000 gallons of water was used in the scene—three of the extras actually drowned during the filming); Japheth carries the rescued Miriam into the ark. Click image to enlarge. (IMDB, Wikipedia, dukewayne.com, medium.com)

Notable about these silent epics is the lack of precaution they took with both the actors and the extras. A huge amount of water—600,000 gallons—was used to film the the climactic flood scene. Three extras drowned and many others suffered broken bones and other serious injuries. One extra had to have his leg amputated. As for the stars, Dolores Costello caught a severe case of pneumonia during the filming.

Here’s a clip to give you an idea of what the extras had to deal with:

Some trivia: John Wayne was an extra in the film, and also worked in the prop department. The director of Noah’s Ark, Michael Curtiz, would go on to direct some of the most well-known films of the 20th century, including The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn, Angels with Dirty Faces with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca with Bogart and Ingrid BergmanMildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, and White Christmas with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. He would also direct an Elvis Presley movie, King Creole, and in his final film would reunite with John Wayne in 1961’s The Comancheros.

 *  *  *

While Americans were enjoying epic filmmaking, Russian audiences were being served up the latest in propaganda, although this was propaganda presented with stunning film innovations and avant-garde sequences. In this item from the March 23 “Talk of the Town” the film is referred to as Through Russia With A Camera, but today it is known as Man with a Movie Camera. This experimental silent film from 1929 supposedly documented ordinary life in Soviet Union (with no signs of the famine that claimed 5 million Soviet citizens in the early 1920s). Directed by Dziga Vertov, the documentary’s famed cinematography was by Mikhail Kaufman. “Talk” observed:

AVANT GARDE…Poster for Man with a Movie Camera rendered in the Constructivist style. At right, cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman risks his life for a unique camera angle. (Wikipedia)
Clockwise, from top left: Cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman prepares to set up for a Black Sea beach sequence near Odessa; images of ordinary life include a woman at a hairdresser and a young woman fastening her bra; the eye through the camera lens, the film’s final image. (ascmag.com)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

A sampling of advertisements from the pages of the March 23 issue include this nearly two-page spread for Pond’s cold cream…no doubt Pond’s was thrilled with this endorsement by “Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr,” otherwise known as Mary Weir of Davenport, Iowa. Mary was wife No. 2 of Cornelius Vanderbilt’s seven wives. Mary and Cornelius were married in 1928 and divorced in 1931…

…and then we have this advertisement from Knox hatters, illustrated by the New Yorker’s own Rea Irvin

…this advertisement for the new Lincoln Building played up the building’s dominating form on Madison Avenue…

…a dominance that continues to this day. I know it’s not cool to gaze up at buildings in Manhattan, but if you’re ever in the neighborhood you must look upward at least once and gaze at the canyon that splits the Lincoln Building’s massive facade…

Lincoln Building, circa 1950. (Museum of the City of New York)

…this Remington typewriter was the closest thing to a desktop computer in 1929…I own one of these and I must attest that it isn’t exactly noiseless…

…this next ad caught my eye because it encouraged people to commit negligent homicide by throwing their product out of a high-rise window…it is also interesting because today Crosley is still a big name in radios and record players, although today’s Crosley is similar in name only. The original Crosley Corporation was a major player in early radio broadcasting, and in addition to manufacturing radios Crosley would go on to build refrigerators, a line of inexpensive subcompact cars and trucks (from 1939 to ’52) cars, and even small airplanes (1929-’36). Crosley ceased as a brand name in 1956, but the name was revived in 1984 by Modern Marketing Concepts. Today Crosley is a leading manufacturer of vintage-styled turntables, radios and other electronics…

…speaking of encouraging ridiculous behavior, some clever marketer at Ronson lighters found a great way not only to sell lighters, but also to encourage customers to waste lots of lighter fluid…

…and then we have this, one of the unlikeliest advertisements ever to appear in the New Yorker—at first I thought it was one of E.B. White’s fake newspapers, but it was actually a two-page spread promoting Davey Tree Surgeons of all things…

…just for fun I am tossing in this illustration by Constantin Aladjalov that appeared along the bottom of a two-page spread…

…and finally, our cartoon from Otto Soglow, in which our subject is either referring to a popular board game from 1929, or a particular sequence in a domino game…

Next Time: While You Were Away…

 

The Bootleg Spirit

As I noted in my previous post, Prohibition never really caught on in New York City, and instead the law gave rise to thousands of the famed (or to some, infamous) speakeasies tucked away in the nooks and crannies of Jazz Age Manhattan.

Jan. 19, 1929 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, there were periodic attempts to reign in the city’s lawbreaking drinkers, including U.S. attorney Emory Buckner’s padlocking of speakeasies in the mid-1920s and New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen’s strong-arm tactics in early 1929.

BOTTOMS UP!…New York speakeasy patrons in the 1920s. New York Police Commissioner Grover Whalen estimated there were 32,000 illegal speakeasies operating in the city in 1929. (boweryboyshistory.com)

The New Yorker took issue with Whalen’s attempt to enforce Prohibition at the end of a billy club (ironically, Whalen was appointed to the post by Mayor Jimmy Walker, who openly flaunted Prohibition). The magazine also attacked the New York Telegram for conspiring with Whalen to spread rumors among the public about poison alcohol being served in the city’s speakeasies. Research chemist Beverly L. Clarke took the Telegram to task in the New Yorker’s “A Reporter at Large” column:

IN YOUR CASE, I’LL MAKE AN EXCEPTION…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker swears in Grover Whalen as New York Police Commissioner in the fall of 1928. Whalen, a product of Tammany Hall, no doubt looked the other way when the mayor, another Tammany alum, openly violated Prohibition laws. (Getty)

There is also the oft-told account of the U.S. government adding poison to alcohol to discourage illegal consumption, but in truth the government never set out to poison anyone. Rather, it was continuing a practice used long before Prohibition to “denature” alcohol, usually by adding methyl alcohol (commonly referred to as “wood alcohol”) to grain alcohol to make it unfit for human consumption. According to Snopes, adding poison to alcohol was a way to exempt producers of alcohol used in paints and solvents from having to pay the taxes levied on potable spirits. Other denaturing agents were added to grain alcohol by mid-1927, including these listed in Clarke’s article:

ACETONE, WITH A MERCURY TWIST…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

Clarke not only accused the Telegram of spreading misinformation, but also of encouraging Whalen’s ruthless enforcement of Prohibition. Whalen was famously quoted as saying, “There is plenty of law at the end of a nightstick.” Clarke continued:

Clarke concluded that it was “patently unfair to discriminate” against the city’s speakeasies on the basis of “pseudo-scientific” evidence:

Illustration by Constantin Alajalov that accompanied Clarke’s article.

 * * *

He Was No Coward

The Jan. 19 issue also featured a lengthy profile of  Noël Coward, written by his longtime friend Alexander Woollcott, a critic and commentator for the New Yorker and a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table.

American illustrator and portrait painter Neysa McMein with friends Noël Coward (center) and Alexander Woollcott (right). (spartacus-educational.com)

Woollcott wrote of his friend’s work ethic while taking a wry shot at the New Yorker magazine’s early days:

Abe Birnbaum provided this sketch of Coward for the profile:

By 1929 Coward was one of the world’s highest-paid writers, but he did have his setbacks, as Woollcott noted:

Woollcott was referring to Coward’s 1927 play Sirocco, which depicted free love among the posh set and was greeted with loud disapproval in London. According to Dick Richards in his 1970 book, The Wit of Noël Coward, Coward later remarked that his “first instinct was to leave England immediately, but this seemed too craven a move, and also too gratifying to my enemies, whose numbers had by then swollen in our minds to practically the entire population of the British Isles.”

 * * *

Par Avion

The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent, Janet Flanner, noted that 1929 would usher in a new era in French passenger air service:

Advances in aviation in 1929 were remarkable considering the Wright Brothers first flight occurred just a little more than 25 years earlier (for those of us in 2018 who can recall 1993, that isn’t a lot of time).

And although only the wealthy could afford to fly back then, it was definitely not for the faint of heart. According to an article by Georgia Diebelius for the Daily Mail, the engine noise could be deafening in the thinly-walled cabins (sometimes little more than painted canvas). The engines of a Ford Tri-Motor, for example, reached 120 decibels on take-off, just 40 decibels below the level that would result in permanent hearing loss. Diebelius writes that because of the noise level, flight attendants had to speak to their passengers through megaphones. As for the flight itself, planes would suddenly drop hundreds of feet at a time, causing passengers to make good use of air sickness bowls placed beneath their seats. Nevertheless, passenger travel increased from just 6,000 annually in 1930 to 1.2 million by 1938.

AND WE THINK WE HAVE IT ROUGH…London chorus girls help bring a French Air Union and Golden Ray (Rayon d’Or) passenger plane onto the tarmac at Croydon, England, in 1932, inaugurating the new summer service from London to Le Touquet. (Getty)
ODD DUCK…This strange-looking Dyle et Bacalan DB 70 was also designed for French passenger service in 1929, but only one was built. The design was later adapted in the 1930s as a bomber. (Collection Hugues de Suremain)

* * *

Skin As Soft As An Armadillo’s

Sampling the advertisements from Jan. 19 we have this message from Amor Skin announcing a youth treatment utilizing something called dasypodine hormones. The term “dasypodine” refers to critters related to the armadillo, so one wonders what they putting on their faces. The armadillo is known carrier of leprosy, so I don’t think I’d be using this stuff, thank you very much…

…and I include this ad for Murad cigarettes because it features artwork by A. H. Fish, renowned for depictions of members of high society. She illustrated dozens of magazine covers for The Tatler and Vanity Fair as well as hundreds of inside and spot illustrations for Condé Nast…

…another cigarette brand, Lucky Strike, convinced American silent movie star Constance Talmadge to endorse their “toasted” smoke…

…and our final advertisement, from Pan American Airliners. Could you imagine an ad for an airline today depicting a man firing a rifle at one of their airplanes?

I include this comic by Alice Harvey for its reference to the song, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” made popular by Broadway’s hit musical revue Blackbirds of 1928. The song continues to be recorded to this day, and was even included on a 2014 collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek, by Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

And finally, a different perspective on Manhattan’s changing skyline, courtesy of Reginald Marsh:

Next Time: Life Among the Snowbirds…

 

The Midnight Frolic

What do you do after an evening at the theater when the night is young and the city still thrums with excitement? In 1929 Manhattan, those willing to shell out a $5 cover charge (equivalent to nearly $120 today) and another $3 for front row seats could take in a show on the rooftop of the New Amsterdam Theatre — Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic.

Jan. 12, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

The New Yorker’s Lois Long was on hand for opening night of the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic, where the rich and famous gathered to enjoy after hours performances by Paul Whitman’s orchestra, singer and comedian Eddie Cantor (performing in blackface), and the boozy torch singer Helen Morgan. In her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” Long observed:

Among the celebrities Long spotted at the Midnight Frolic’s opening night was actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce, famed for collecting men along with diamonds and furs:

FAMOUSLY FAMOUS…Largely unknown today, during the Roaring Twenties actress and dancer Peggy Hopkins Joyce was one of the decade’s most famous celebrities, her noteriety mostly deriving from her flamboyant lifestyle that included six marriages, dozens of engagements and affairs with celebrities ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Walter Chrysler, who reportedly gave her $2 million in jewelry including a 134-karat diamond necklace. (http://jenniferfabulous.blogspot.com)
WHAT THEY DID FOR FUN…Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas wearing her balloon costume on the stage of the New Amsterdam’s rooftop theatre during the original run of the Midnight Frolic. Male patrons were encouraged to use their cigars and cigarettes to pop the balloons. Photo circa 1915. (Pinterest)

According to a Museum of the City of New York blog (posted by Nimisha Bhat), Flo Ziegfeld was tired of seeing his audiences leave after performances of his Ziegfeld Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street (and spend money elsewhere), so in 1915 he staged a new revue — the Danse de Follies! (later to be called Midnight Frolic) on the New Amsterdam’s underused 680-seat roof-top level that included tables, box seats, and a balcony. Ziegfeld added a glass walkway that would allow chorus girls to dance above the audience, affording some customers a more risqué perspective on the dancers.

Bhat writes that the club “stayed open year-round for seven years and while World War I couldn’t stop the Midnight Frolic, Prohibition was ultimately what led Ziegfeld to end the show in 1922.” In 1921 Ziegfeld told The New York Times: “The best class of people from all over the world have been in the habit of coming up on the roof … and when they are subjected to the humiliation of having policemen stand by their tables and watch what they are drinking, then I do not care to keep open any longer.” The show Lois Long attended in January 1929 was a revival of the Midnight Frolic, and although Prohibition was still the law, by 1929 it was widely flaunted if not completely ignored by many New Yorkers. Long also noted changes to the rooftop, including a new decor by famed theatrical designer Joseph Urban:

Clockwise, from top left, Hazel Forbes poses in her costume for Ziegfeld’s 1929 Midnight Frolic; Dolores (also known as Rose Dolores) plays the part of “The White Peacock” in the Tropical Birds number for the Midnight Frolic of 1919. Considered to be first celebrity clothes model, Dolores is often credited as the inventor of the “blank hauteur” look of modern fashion models; Jean Ackerman & Evelyn Groves from the 1929 show; program for the 1929 Midnight Frolic. (White Studios/Pinterest/Playbill)
READY TO FROLIC…Stage ensemble from the 1917 Midnight Frolic included, at center left, actor/humorist Will Rogers. (Museum of the City of New York)
EXTROVERTS…Margaret Morris, Kay Laurell, and Florence Cripps on the infamous glass walkway in the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic of 1916. (talesofamadcapheiress.blogspot.com)
THEY WERE HAMMERED…Insisting that theater-goers would have sore hands after applauding so much, Flo Ziegfeld provided little wooden hammers at Frolic tables, so audiences could bang out their appreciation. (Museum of the City of New York)

There is a filmed performance of Eddie Cantor allegedly made that night at the Ziegfeld Theatre Roof Garden, but it was actually filmed on a soundstage at the Paramount Astoria studio in Queens. You can tell it is staged because during Cantor’s performance he recognizes some of the celebrities who were at the opening (the camera shifts to them as they take bows), but when he calls out Peggy Joyce the camera stays on Cantor. Apparently she didn’t find it necessary to participate in this charade. Nevertheless, this video gives you some idea of what was presented at the Midnight Frolic. And one wonders why Cantor performed in blackface, since it’s just his standard song and gags schtick:

 * * *

Mea Culpa

Also in the Jan. 12 issue was this small ad in the back pages — an apology from Texas Guinan, actress, producer, and entrepreneur well-known to New York nightlife (and to the vice squad):

QUEEN OF THE NIGHTCLUBS…or so they called Texas Guinan, pictured here from a 1929 film by the same name. (texasguinan.blogspot.com)

 * * *

Nevertheless, Prohibition Continued to Suck…

The Jan. 12 “Talk of the Town” addressed the sheer folly of Prohibition enforcement:

DON’T JUDGE A BOTTLE BY ITS COVER…An assortment of confiscated, adulterated spirits from the Prohibition era. (prohibition.themobmuseum.org)

SUPPLY AND DEMAND…In 1925 there were an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies in New York City alone. Near the end of the ban on alcohol in 1933 Life photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured some of the city’s elite speakeasies. (Life)

The “Talk” item also addressed the new police commissioner’s approach to enforcement of the unpopular law:

And as it happened, Grover Whalen was also the subject of the Jan. 12 “Profile,” which included this illustration by Peter Arno:

 

 * * *

How’s the Old Ticker?

The “Talk of the Town” also marveled at the technology behind the famed news ticker in Times Square, inaugurated on election night the previous November:

JUNE 6, 1944…Crowd watching D-Day headlines on the New York Times building. (Library of Congress)

The news ticker, known as the “zipper” (which inspired the news crawl at the bottom of today’s cable news channels), made Times Square the place to be when big events were announced. According to Wired magazine, the zipper, invented by Frank C. Reilly, “was the technological marvel of its day, extending 380 feet around the Times Tower and, with a band 5-feet tall, the moving letters were visible from a distance of several city blocks.” Wired cites a 2005 New York Times column to describe how it worked:

“Inside the control room, three cables poured energy into transformers. The hookup to all the bulbs totaled 88,000 soldered connections. Messages from a ticker came to a desk beside a cabinet like the case that contained type used by old-time compositors. The cabinet contained thin slabs called letter elements. An operator composed the message letter-by-letter in a frame. The frame, when filled with the letters and spaces that spelled out a news item, was inserted in a magazine at one end of a track. A chain conveyor moved the track, and each letter in the frame brushed a number of contacts. Each contact set a light flashing on Broadway.” Reilly calculated that there were 261,925,664 flashes an hour from the zipper’s 14,800 bulbs.

* * *

From Our Advertisers

A couple of clothing store ads which demonstrated a more modern look in graphic design…

…and two terrific illustrations (out of four in a two-page spread) by Reginald Marsh that decorated the “Profile” section of the magazine, featuring scenes from the Webster Hall nightclub in the East Village…

…and our cartoon, courtesy of Roch King:

Next Time: The Bootleg Spirit…

The Prohibition Portia

Despite Prohibition, booze flowed freely in 1928 New York thanks to bootleggers and lax enforcement by everyone from cops to judges. One major exception was Mabel Walker Willebrandt, a U.S. Assistant Attorney General from 1921 to 1929 who among other things handled cases concerning violations of the Volstead Act.

Oct. 20, 1928 cover by Constantin Alajálov.

Although Willebrandt herself enjoyed the occasional drink (she was personally opposed to prohibition), she was nevertheless serious about enforcing the law, and rather than chasing small-time bootleggers or padlocking speakeasies, she targeted the big-time operators.

How Willebrandt fits into this blog entry can be found in Lois Long’s “Table for Two” column in the Oct. 20, 1928 issue of the New Yorker, in which Long described the current state of affairs of Manhattan’s nightlife, including the departure of boozy torch singer Helen Morgan from the speakeasy scene for Flo Ziegfeld’s late-night Broadway revue, the Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic:

WELL-KNOWN TO THE POLICE…Helen Morgan started singing in Chicago speakeasies in the early 1920s, where she defined the look of the torch singer, including the draped-over-the-piano pose, which was her signature. (amanandamouse.blogspot.com)

Morgan, who at the time was also starring in Broadway’s Show Boat, had been arrested the previous December for violation of liquor laws at her own popular nightclub, Chez Morgan. She would not return to performing in nightclubs until after the repeal of Prohibition.

Long also looked in on the popular Harlem nightclubs, where the dance music was “throbbier than ever.”

HOPPING IN HARLEM…Lois Long wrote that you couldn’t get near the popular Small’s (left) on a Saturday night, while Connie’s Inn (right) offered a new show that was “as torrid as ever.” (harlemworldmag.com, New York Public Library)

There was a sober undercurrent to all of this merry-making, namely Willebrandt’s determined efforts to go after the big bootlegging operations that were fueling all of this mirth. Long wrote:

PROHIBITION PORTIA…At left, Mabel Walker Willebrandt being sworn in as U.S. Assistant Attorney General in 1921. At right, Willebrandt on the cover of Time magazine, August 26, 1929. (legallegacy.wordpress.com)

Willebrandt decried the political interference and the incompetence (or corruption) of public officials who undermined the enforcement of the Volstead Act, and even fired a number of prosecutors. As her office also oversaw the enforcement of tax laws, she developed the strategy for prosecuting major crime bosses for income tax evasion. It was an approach that would finally put the famed Chicago gangster Al Capone behind bars in 1931.

Lois Long’s mention of Willebrandt was doubtless due to the 1928 presidential campaign, during which Willebrandt openly campaigned for the “dry” candidate, Republican Herbert Hoover, over the “wet” Al Smith, who referred to Willebrandt as “The Prohibition Portia.” Smith was referencing Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which the play’s heroine, Portia, outwits the merchant Shylock in a court case by referring to the exact language of the law.

Jim Dandy

New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was well-known for his taste in clothes (as well as for the nightlife), so E.B. White (writing in “The Talk of the Town”) decided to pay a visit to the mayor’s personal tailor to see how the “royal garments” were created. Excerpts:

CLOTHES HORSE…New York Mayor Jimmy Walker was a well-known dandy and a familiar face at Manhattan nightclubs. Rarely seen at City Hall, Walker used the lavish Casino nightclub in Central Park as his unofficial headquarters. (uptowndandy.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

In one of my recent entries (The Tastemakers, posted Nov. 28) I noted how Prohibition had driven some advertisers to absurd lengths, including manufacturers of non-alcoholic beverages who appealed to the refined tastes (and snobbishness) usually associated with fine wines (see Clicquot Club ad below). Gag writer Arthur H. Folwell had some fun with such pretensions:

Speaking of refinement, when was the last time you saw someone dressed like this at a hockey game?

Before they graced the silver screen, the Marx Brothers were one of Broadway’s biggest draws, including their 1928 hit “Animal Crackers,” advertised in the back pages of the Oct. 20 New Yorker.

Our cartoons are courtesy Peter Arno, who looked in on a Hollywood movie set…

…and Gardner Rea, who rendered a scenario for an upper class emergency…

Next Time: Lighter Than Air…

 

 

 

 

 

The Russians Are Coming

Compared to Hollywood, cinema as an art form in the 1920s was more advanced in Europe, where filmmakers took a more mature, nuanced approach to movies; they focused less on money and more on exploring difficult social and historical issues. Trench warfare, genocide and famine have a way of doing that to you.

June 9, 1928 cover by Ilonka Karasz.

The contrast between the European avant-garde and Hollywood’s Tinseltown was not lost on the New Yorker’s film critics, who consistently lambasted American cinema while applauding nearly everything coming out of Europe, and especially the films produced by German and Russian directors. The critic “O.C.” used the Russians latest American release, The End of St. Petersburg, to drive home the point. He also chided those who dismissed the film as propaganda, a stance much in line with leftist intellectuals of the day who found inspiration in the Russian Revolution (and sometimes they looked the other way when things didn’t go so well in the Soviet experiment—1928 marked the beginning of the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan. By 1934 it was estimated that almost 15 million people died from forced collectivization and famine).

The End of St. Petersburg was blatant propaganda, to be sure, but to this day it has been widely praised for its cinematic innovations. The story itself was fairly straightforward: A peasant goes to St. Petersburg looking for work, gets arrested for his involvement in a labor union and is subsequently sent to fight in the trenches of World War I. His experiences in the war solidify his commitment to revolution and the overthrow of the capitalist overlords. The New Yorker review:

OPPRESSORS & OPPRESSED…The shareholders of a steel mill (top) demand longer hours from workers who already suffer from hellish conditions at the factory in The End of St. Petersburg. (Stills from the film, available on YouTube)

The New Yorker reviewer suggested that a story used primarily to influence an audience—propaganda—was not necessarily a bad thing:

The horrors of trench warfare were graphically depicted in The End of St. Petersburg. (stills from film)

 *  *  *

Back in the New World, most of the talk in cinematic circles revolved around the excitement of “talking pictures.”

FORERUNNER…The Vitaphone system was the most successful of early attempts at sound movies. It synchronized a large recorded disc (seen at lower right) with the film. The Jazz Singer, often heralded as the movie that marked the commercial ascendance of sound films, used Vitaphone technology. (Audio Engineering Society)
BETTER YET…Sound movies took off with the invention of a soundtrack that could be printed directly onto the film. Filmmakers either used Variable Area (left) or Variable Density (center) mono optical soundtracks located between the film’s picture frame and sprocket holes. The tracks could be read by a newly developed photocell (a light source also known as Aeo-light) that could be modulated by audio signals and was used to expose the soundtrack in sound cameras such as the one at right. (Images 1 & 2, Audio Engineering Society/ Image 3, Wikipedia)

It seems that Fox Movietone newsreels really got things going with sound and whetted the audience appetites for more:

TELLING US A THING OR TWO…Irish playwright and critic George Bernard Shaw’s first visit to America, recorded for posterity in this 1928 Fox Movietone Newsreel. (still from film)

*  *  *

Then There Was The Other Playwright…

Mae West, to be exact. My guess is her approach to the craft was a bit different than G.B. Shaw’s, and we can gather as much from these excerpts from the June 9 “Talk of the Town.” The piece discusses West’s rise to fame as the creator and star of the scandalous play Sex, and her unorthodox approach to rehearsals.

DEMURE SHE’S NOT…Mae West in 1928’s Diamond Lil. (doctormacro.com)

 *  *  *

Although many today would identify D.H. Lawrence as one of great English novelists of the 20th century, eighty years ago the New Yorker book critic Dorothy Parker described him as “very near to being first rate.”

ALMOST FIRST RATE? D.H. Lawrence with wife Frieda Weekley in Chapala, Mexico in 1923. (tanvirdhaka.blogspot.com)

 *  *  *

Blind Justice

The makers of Old Gold cigarettes claimed to have scientific proof on their side with a series of ads in the New Yorker featuring endorsements by the rich and famous. This ad ran in the June 9 issue:

In the same issue was this cartoon by Al Frueh that took a poke at Old Gold’s marketing strategy…

…and Peter Arno offered this unique take on human vanity…

Talking pictures continued to be a theme in the June 16, 1928, issue of the New Yorker.

In his “Of All Things Column,” Howard Brubaker suggested that sound movies would spell the end of careers for some silent stars:

Although some actors struggled with the transition to sound, the reasons why some major stars faded with the advent of “talkies” are far more nuanced. In many cases, some stars packed it in because their careers had already peaked during the silent era, and both studios and audiences were looking for some fresh faces.

HAS BEENS?…It is a common assumption that sound motion pictures killed the careers of many silent stars, including big names like John Gilbert (left) and Clara Bow. The reality is far more nuanced. (Wikipedia/NY Post)

 *  *  *

Niven Busch, Jr. continued to explore the illicit bar scene in his recurring feature “Speakeasy Nights.” I include this excerpt because it described a rather clever facade devised by the owner of the “J.P. Speakeasy.”

WORK/LIFE BALANCE…What might appear to be a typical business office might conceal an even more lucrative business in the back rooms. (Musée McCord/americanhistoryusa.com)
Busch observed an interesting protocol for admittance into the speakeasy, including a typewritten message devised to throw off any would-be Prohibition officers:

From Our Advertisers…

This ad leaves a bad taste in your mouth no matter how you look at. Nothing like coating your mouth with Milk of Magnesia before lighting up that first fag of the day…

…and here we have another ad for Flit insecticide, courtesy of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel.

And finally, a look at a Roaring Twenties wedding reception, courtesy cartoonist Garrett Price:

Next Time: Down to Coney Island…