A Bridge Too Far

Despite the rise of the professional classes in the 20th century (and their attendant rules for accreditation and licensing) there still existed individuals who practiced at the highest levels with little or no formal training.

June 8, 1929 cover by Julien de Miskey.

Gustav Lindenthal (1850-1935) was a case in point. An Austrian immigrant who designed New York’s Hell Gate Bridge among others had little formal education and no degree in civil engineering. Rather, he learned by working as an assistant on various construction projects and teaching himself mathematics, metallurgy, engineering, hydraulics and other principles of the building profession.

Lindenthal was praised for his innovations in bridge design as well as for his artistic eye, but one project eluded him throughout his career: the largest bridge in the world—a massive double-decker that would span the Hudson River from 57th Street in New York City to Hoboken in New Jersey. The June 8, 1929 “Talk of the Town” checked in on the nearly 80-year-old bridge builder:

A cornerstone for the Hudson bridge was laid in 1895, but a series of bad breaks, including the 1898 Depression and various political setbacks, served to continually delay the project. The New York Tribune anticipated the bridge in its April 28, 1907 edition…

(untapped cities) click to enlarge

…and three years later the Tribune seemed confident that work was finally underway…

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…however by the 1920s the bridge was still a dream. In 1921 Scientific American offered the latest glimpse of Lindenthal’s proposed 57th Street — a span 6,000 feet in length, with a 200-foot-wide double deck accommodating 24 lanes of traffic and 12 railroad tracks. An artist’s rendering included a massive building, on an arched plinth, positioned over the bridge deck:

BIG PLANS…Clockwise, from top left: Artist’s rendering of Gustav Lindenthal’s proposed 57th Street bridge from the June 25, 1921 issue of Scientific American. That same issue featured a size comparison with the then-tallest building in the world. Below, the 1895 cornerstone, recently recovered from a crumbling pier on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and relocated to the grounds of Steven’s Institute of Technology in Hoboken. (untappedcities.com) click to enlarge

The New Yorker suggested that Lindenthal’s legacy was already secure, and with his determination and vigorous constitution, he still might still win the day:

Despite his vigor, Lindenthal would not live to see his dream realized. However, he is remembered for building some of New York’s most iconic bridges, including the Hell Gate and Queensboro:

LEGACY…Clockwise, from top left, Hell Gate Bridge; Gustav Lindenthal, circa 1920; Queensboro Bridge. (Library of Congress/Britannica/Pinterest)

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Keeping Up With the Lindberghs

Despite his worldwide fame, Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974) detested the limelight, particularly when it came to his personal life. Writing in the column “The Wayward Press,” humorist Robert Benchley mocked the newspapers for their invasions into the lives of the celebrated, including newlyweds Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

MIND YOUR OWN BEESWAX…Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh after their marriage in a private ceremony on May 27, 1929, at the home of her parents in Englewood, New Jersey. (Library of Congress)

Benchley wasn’t buying the newspaper industry’s insistence that the public demanded to know the facts about the flyboy’s nuptials:

SENSATIONAL, ISN”T IT?…An NEA Wire Service account of the “secret” Lindbergh-Morrow wedding. Click image to enlarge.

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Let the Good Times Roll

With the newly remodeled Central Park Casino officially christened by Mayor Jimmy Walker and his cronies, the New Yorker’s Lois Long (in her column “Tables for Two”) decided to pay a visit to see what all the fuss was about:

PARTY LIKE IT’S 1933…Revelers at the Central Park Casino (top) celebrate the end of Prohibition in 1933. Below, the Casino in 1929. (Corbis/New York Times)

Long also commented on the declining fortunes of another familiar face of New York nightlife, Texas Guinan, who had fled Manhatten’s smoky speakeasy scene for the bucolic climes of Nassau County…

GOODBYE CITY LIFE…Texas Guinan took her nightclub to the quiet village of Valley Stream, New York, located just south of Queens in Nassau County. Guinan didn’t abandon all the trappings of city life: she drove to Valley Stream in a lavender Rolls Royce, and continued to greet her patrons with her famous “Hello, Sucker!” (Pinterest/texasguinanblogspot.com)

Long concluded that regardless where one ended up on a summer evening, one should be aware that a shabbier crowd awaited their company:

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Cuba Libre

Now we look at another New Yorker contributor who today is not exactly a household name: Donald Barr Chidsey (1902-1981), an American writer, biographer, historian and novelist best known for his adventure fiction. In this short column he offered some insights into the Cuban drinking scene:

ADVENTURESOME LAD…Donald Barr Chidsey wrote more than 50 books, including many action-adventure titles such as Captain Adam, from 1953. Note the resemblance of the hero on the cover to the author. (etsy/Amazon)

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Waxing Poetic

From its very first issue, the New Yorker also published a wide variety of poets, including Nicholas Samstag (1904-1968),who contributed several poems to the magazine in 1928 and 1929. Samstag later went on to a successful career in advertising, and was a close associate of  Edward Bernays, considered the father of public relations and propaganda.

A frequent contributor to the New Yorker, writer, poet and critic Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) published more than three dozen poems in the magazine from 1929 to 1972. Here is his first contribution, in the June 8, 1929 issue:

Van Doren’s last contribution to the New Yorker was published on Nov. 18, 1972, less than a month before his death. It was appropriately titled “Good Riddance”…

DID THE APPLE FALL FAR FROM THE TREE?…At left, a circa 1925 portrait of Mark Van Doren. He was the father of Charles Van Doren, who achieved brief renown as the 1957 winner of the rigged game show Twenty One. He is pictured at far right with fellow contestant Vivienne Nearing and game show host Jack Barry. (art.net/Wikipedia)

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From Our Advertisers

As summer approached some distinct themes emerged in ads aimed at female consumers. Here is a collection of ads from the June 8 issue that capitalized on the new tanning craze of the late 1920s…

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…and another big craze of the 1920s, the permanent wave, seemed to be a necessity as summer approached…

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…as for the gents, check out this new line of Jantzen swimwear modeled by what appear to be identical twins…

…and when you’re out of the water, a pair of “fashion welts” were all the rage for tip-toeing across the hot sands of Southampton…

…this ad from B. Altman depicted two women clad for “open motoring” (not sure how those long, lithe figures will fit in that tiny rumble seat)…

…for a less dusty mode of transportation, you could hop aboard The Broadway Limited for a quick 20-hour jaunt to Chicago…

…or better yet, have a relaxing smoke with one of your chums aboard a Sikorsky seaplane…

…our cigarette ad for this week comes from Philip Morris, makers of Marlboro, who once again exploited the nation’s youth with a bogus handwriting contest that doubled as a product endorsement…

…our June 8 comics are from Helen Hokinson, who offered a full page of illustrations from a “Fifth Avenue Wedding”…

…while Leonard Dove peeked in on a wastrel son and his disappointed father…

…and we have an awkward moment revealed by an unknown cartoonist (ID anyone?)…

…and an observation by C.W. Anderson on the minimalism of modernist design…

…and finally, Peter Arno’s take on the challenges of shooting sound motion pictures…

Caption: “Lord, Mr. Rolbert, you’ll have to develop a more robust sneeze—the public will think you’re a sissy!”

Next Time: Something Old, Something New…

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 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…

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…

 

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?

Despite The New Yorker’s taste for the finer things–polo, opera, classical music–its editors couldn’t resist the pull of popular culture as both spectacle and fodder for mockery of the hoi polloi.

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Oct. 9, 1926 cover by Julien deMiskey.

And so we have the Oct. 9, 1926 issue with a review of the much-anticipated Broadway play Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was based on a surprise bestselling novel by Anita Loos (and illustrated by The New Yorker’s own Ralph Barton). Despite garnering lukewarm reviews from critics, the public loved the adventures of gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee.

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First edition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos, illustrated by Ralph Barton (Wikipedia)
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Edward Steichen portrait of Anita Loos, 1926. The New Yorker would feature a lengthy, admiring “Profile” of Loos in its Nov. 6, 1926 issue.(Minneapolis Institute of Art)

According to Wikipedia, the book was one of several famous novels published in 1925 to chronicle the Jazz Age, including F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (which ironically didn’t do so well) and Carl Van Vechten’s Firecrackers. Loos was inspired to write the book after watching a sexy blonde “turn intellectual H. L. Mencken into a lovestruck schoolboy.” Mencken, a close friend of Loos, actually enjoyed the work and saw to it that it was published.

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Gold-digging flapper Lorelei Lee (June Walker, second from left), Henry Spofford (Frank Morgan, second from right), and the rest of the cast tussle in the stage production Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Times Square Theatre, 1926. Another “blonde,” Marilyn Monroe, would famously portray Lorelei Lee in the 1953 Howard Hawks film. (New York Public Library)

Ralph Barton contributed this drawing of June Walker for the magazine’s review:

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And a bit of the review itself…

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In other items, Lois Long paid a visit to Texas Guinan’s 300 Club on 54th Street, which apparently was still the place to go for a roaring good time:

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JUST HAVING A LITTLE FUN…According to the blog Ephemeral New York, Texas Guinan’s 300 Club at 151 West 54th Street hosted the likes of John Barrymore, George Gershwin, and Clara Bow. The club was targeted by prohibition officials, who were constantly padlocking the door and arresting Texas. Guinan’s clever rejoinder to the officials: The 300 Club’s patrons brought liquor with them, and because the place was so small, the showgirls were forced to dance close to customers. (Ephemeral New York)

The magazine’s comics continued to mine the humor of rich old men out on the town with their young flapper mistresses. The one below was a center spread illustration by Wallace Morgan with the caption: “Poor little girl–to think you’ve never had anyone to protect you.”

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Finally, a look back at one of my earlier blog posts (Cuban Idyll) that featured Americans in Havana. I recently traveled there and visited some of the old haunts, including the famed Sloppy Joe’s:

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(Photo by David Ochsner)

Next Time: The Changing Skyline…

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Logrolling on West 44th

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August 29, 1925 cover by Garrett Price.

In a previous post I briefly looked at the Algonquin Round Table–writers, critics, artists, some of them New Yorker contributors–who had been exchanging witticisms over lunch at the Algonquin Hotel since 1919.

Like so many things connected to The New Yorker, Alexander Woollcott was at the center of the famed table’s origin story. According to Wikipedia, the group that would become the Round Table began meeting as the result of a practical joke carried out by theatrical press agent John Peter Toohey, who was annoyed at Woollcott (a New York Times drama critic) for refusing to plug one of his clients (Eugene O’Neill) in his column. Toohey organized a luncheon supposedly to welcome Woollcott back from World War I, where he had been a correspondent for Stars and Stripes (and where Woollcott first met Harold Ross and Jane Grant). Instead Toohey used the occasion to poke fun at Woollcott on a number of fronts, including his long-winded war stories. Woollcott’s enjoyment of the joke and the success of the event prompted Toohey to suggest that the group meet every day at the Algonquin for lunch.

An illustrated feature by Ralph Barton in the August 29, 1925 issue (titled “The Enquiring Reporter”) thumbs its nose at critics of the Round Table who accused its members of “logrolling” (exchanging favorable plugs of one another’s works). Barton’s feature spoofs the man-on-the-street interviews that were popular in the 1920s. The persons chosen “at random” are none other than members of the Algonquin Round Table who take turns denying that any logrolling takes place at the famed gathering:

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In fact, there was quite a bit of logrolling taking place in this “Vicious Circle.” As Thomas Kunkel writes in Genius in Disguise, in addition to New Yorker contributors, the Algonquin Round Table variously included representatives of the New York Times, the New York Tribune, Vanity Fair, Harpers Bazaar and Life.

“The wits cross-pollinated feverishly. Shrugging off charges of logrolling, they quoted one another in their columns, reviewed one another’s shows, publicized one another’s books. To be fair many of the glowing notices were deserved—and in any case not all the notices were glowing.”

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The four writers featured in Barton’s fictitious “man on the street” feature. Clockwise, from top left: Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, George Jean Nathan, and Franklin P. Adams. (reocities.com, Wikipedia, artsfuse.com, electronpencil.com)

Kunkel also observes, “By far the most powerful transmitter of Round Table wit was (Franklin) Adams (known to most as F.P.A.), whose column in the Tribune (and later the World), “The Conning Tower,” was scoured by tens of thousands of New Yorkers for its dollops of quippery and clever verse. Young writers conspired to break into the column, and the appearance of even a four-line snippet was regarded as a triumph…the Round Table supplied F.P.A. with a freshet of material, and he wasn’t bashful about using it. A particularly good line from Parker or Kaufman or Benchley might turn up in “The Conning Tower” within hours of its utterance.”

In other happenings, “The Talk of the Town” noted that the last meal served at Delmonico’s–which was fated for the wrecking ball–was less a cause for mourning and more one of scorn for the bad taste of the site’s owners:

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The New Yorker bids a bitter farewell to Delmonico’s.

Screenshot 2015-06-15 15.17.50Among other items, O.H.P. Garrett penned a “Profile” about flamboyant mayoral candidate Jimmie Walker that seemed to anticipate the raucous career that would follow after his election.

Garrett observed that “his life is constructed of minutes and seconds. He can be clocked with a stop watch,” and that Walker’s main concerns seemed to be Sunday baseball, boxing and the repeal of movie censorship.

Lois Long seemed a bit bored with the week’s diversions in her column, “When Nights Are Bold,” but did welcome the reappearance of Texas Guinan after yet another club was threatened with padlocks by the Prohibition Authority:

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She just wants to have fun…Texas 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 the Hell’s Kitchen brownstone they shared with Alexander Woollcott and Hawley Truax. (texasguinan.blogspot)

On the advertising front, the back inside cover and back cover were graced with paid advertising. As with most ads in The New Yorker, the target audience had some money to spend on travel:

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And we end with these weekend scenes from the magazine’s center spread, drawn by Helen Hokinson:

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Next time, tennis anyone?

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Bryan’s Planet of the Apes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the piece in its entirety:

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

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

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

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

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Sherwood Anderson (Chicago History Museum)

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

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

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

POWER COUPLE…Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the mid 1920s. Pickford, a Canadian-American actress, was one of the 36 founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a key figure in shaping today’s Hollywood. The couple formed the independent United Artists along with D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. (Pinterest)

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

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

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

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)

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

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(New Yorker Digital Archive)