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)

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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:

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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)

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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)

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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)…

…no signature, but I believe this is I. Klein’s take on modern furniture…

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

…again unsigned, but I believe it’s also Leonard Dove

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)

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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:

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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)

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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:

 

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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…

After Hours

Broadway shows were a popular nightlife diversion for New York’s upper middle-class, but plays and musicals were only part of an evening’s entertainment. The city’s “after theatre” clubs beckoned those who enjoyed an evening of dance with the Astaires or a light comedy with Lunt and Fontanne, but believed the night was still young.

May 5, 1928 cover by Leonard Dove.

And who better to chronicle the late night revelry than Lois Long, who through her “Tables For Two” column (signed “Lipstick”) was a leading voice of after hours Manhattan and a nightly presence in its various clubs and speakeasies. Longtime New Yorker writer Brendan Gill (Here at the New Yorker) observed that Long, who joined the New Yorker in 1925, “had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play — a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”

In May 1928 Long had been married for about nine months to colleague and cartoonist Peter Arno, who was also a regular fixture of the nightclub scene. But in Long’s column for May 5, 1928, one can detect a bit of weariness setting in, the 27-year-old sensing the next generation didn’t know how to have a good time.

And it didn’t help that the younger people were dancing to “canned music,” what with the spread of broadcast radio and improvements in phonograph records…

LIPSTICK WAS A FAN of the Paul Specht Orchestra, seen here in 1928. (YouTube)
BUT NOT A FAN of those darn kids who preferred records to live music, and didn’t know how to party at the clubs. (Pinterest)

For those on the wilder side, Lois Long recommended a number of after-hours entertainments, including Texas Guinan’s latest all-night club, Salon Royal, and its snake-charming hootch dancer.

WHOOPEE was the order of the day at Texas Guinan’s Salon Royal on West 58th Street, now refurbished as the 6 Columbus Hotel. Guinan was well known to New Yorker writers and editors and was a frequent guest of the numerous parties hosted by Harold Ross and Jane Grant in their Hell’s Kitchen brownstone. (texasguinan.blogspot)
A FAVORITE HAUNT…A bartender at the 21 Club speakeasy in New York, as photographed by Margaret Bourke-White circa 1930. The 21 was Lois Long’s favorite watering hole. (Timeline)

Because so many New Yorker readers were both theatre and after-theatre-goers, the magazine included some of the after-dinner destinations in its “Goings On About Town” section. Excerpts follow.

Rubberneckers

A May 5 “Talk of the Town” segment (written by James Thurber) commented on the challenges film crews faced when they shot on location in the city, in this case the production of Harold Lloyd’s latest comedy, Speedy:

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION…Silent film star Harold Lloyd (leaning on car at right) and his crew draw a crowd under Queensboro Bridge during the filming of Speedy. (silentlocations.wordpress.com)
BABE IN THE CITY…Harold Lloyd takes baseball legend Babe Ruth for a wild spin in 1928’s Speedy. (YouTube)

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Before Mommie Dearest

The actress Joan Crawford is best known today as the subject of the 1981 biopic, Mommie Dearest, which portrayed Crawford as an insecure, abusive parent to her adopted daughter Christina (the film was based on a 1978 memoir and exposé of the same name written by Christina Crawford).

But in the 1920s and 30s the former dancer and chorus girl was better known for her sex appeal, attractive to men for her looks and to women for the roles in which she portrayed hard-working women who find both romance and success.

PRETTY PICTURE…Ramon Novarro and Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore, 1928. (Silent Hollywood)

The New Yorker took notice of Crawford in its review of Across to Singapore, the critic O.C. noting that Crawford “gets prettier in every picture”…

Another film released later in 1928, Our Dancing Daughters, would make Crawford a star and a symbol of the liberated, 1920s flapper. Even the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald would observe that “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.”

Another actress with a talent for living was 34-year-old Mae West, who was appearing on Broadway in Diamond Lil. Already a 21-year veteran of the stage (she began performing in vaudeville in 1907 at age 14), West was known for writing and performing in risqué plays beginning in 1926, when she appeared in Sex, which was panned by conservative critics but enjoyed hot ticket sales.

Subsequent plays aroused controversy and kept her name in the newspapers, but her play Diamond Lil would become the Broadway hit that would cement her image as a sex symbol, one she would maintain until her death at age 87 in 1980. In the May 5 issue artist Miguel Covarrubias offered his vision of the Queen of the Bowery:

THEATRE CARD for the Broadway production of Diamond Lil at the Royale Theatre. (maewest.blogspot.com)
STILL AT IT 50 YEARS LATER…The 86-year-old Mae West in her last film, 1978’s Sextette. In a 1979 review, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the film “a disorienting freak show in which Mae West, now 87 years old, does a frail imitation of the personality that wasn’t all that interesting 45 years ago. The movie, which opens today at the Victoria and other theaters, is a poetic, terrifying reminder of how a virtually disembodied ego can survive total physical decay and loss of common sense. (filmcomment.com)

From Our Advertisers

It’s interesting to see how 1920s advertisers made even the most mundane gadgets appear to be vital to one’s survival. The ad for the “Sesamee” auto switch lock is a case in point, appealing to upscale female readers of the New Yorker with this odd scenario in which the gadget enables the driver to avoid the awkward and potentially hazardous situation depicted below, although it hard to see what the actual threat might be from a dandy in a tie and waistcoat. Perhaps death from boredom.

Our cartoon is courtesy of Mary Petty,  who would become a renowned illustrator for the New Yorker, best remembered for a series of covers featuring her gentle satirization of the upper class Peabody family.

Next Time: Dog’s Best Friend…