All That Jazz

The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” editors were always in search of something to amuse, and in the Jan. 29, 1927 issue they found it in one Maurine Watkins, who wrote the Broadway hit musical Chicago (yes, THAT one) while still enrolled in her drama class at Yale:

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Maurine Watkins (Chicago Tribune)

Watkins transformed a brief career as a Chicago Tribune crime reporter into her Broadway success, thanks to her fondness for writing about murderers:

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Chicago opened on Broadway in late December 1926 at the Sam Harris Theatre, where it ran for 172 performances. Watkins wrote the play as “homework” for her Yale drama class:

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It didn’t take long for Hollywood to come calling, with Cecil B. DeMille producing a silent film version (directed by Frank Urson) in 1927.

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Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart from the 1927 film, Chicago. Ginger Rogers would play the role in the 1942 movie Roxie Hart, and Renée Zellweger would play the part in the 2002 film, Chicago. (chicagology)

Watkins would go on to write about 20 plays, moving on to Hollywood to write screenplays including the 1936 comedy Libeled Lady. She left Hollywood in the 1940s to be close to her parents in Florida. A lifelong Christian, Watkins spent much of her fortune funding the study of Greek and the Bible at some 20 universities, including Princeton. Following her death in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Chicago to famed choreographer and director Bob Fosse. Fosse would go on to develop Chicago: A Musical Vaudeville in 1975, which was revived in 1997 and turned into an Academy Award-winning film in 2002.

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Winter doldrums had set into city, which was digging out of the latest snowstorm and leaving the “Talk” editors pining for spring.

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January 29, 1927 cover by Ilona Karasz.

So it was unwelcome news that the green lawns along Cottage Row were to become the latest casualties of the booming city:

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According to the excellent blog Daytonian in Manhattan, around 1848 William Rhinelander filled the 7th Avenue block between 12th and 13th Streets with eleven three-story homes above “English basements.” The simple residences were intended for middle-class families and sat more than twenty feet back from the street, providing grassy lawns and garden space. During summer weather each floor had a deep veranda that provided shade and caught cooling breezes.

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This 1936 photograph by Berenice Abbot shows the abandoned “Cottage Row.” (Library of Congress)

As it turned out, the green lawns won a brief reprieve: By the time developers got around to building an apartment on the site, the Depression hit and left Cottage Row standing for another ten years. It was demolished in 1937, replaced not by an apartment building but rather by a gas station and used car lot, which were replaced in 1964 by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex):

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Today the Cottage Row site is occupied by the Joseph Curran Building (now the Lenox Hill Healthplex). Albert C. Ledner, a New Orleans architect, fancifully evoked seafaring themes in his design of the Curran Building, which originally housed the headquarters of the National Maritime Union. (MCD Magazine)

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The winter drear was further compounded by the sooty smog that lingered over the city, fed by so many coal-fired furnaces. The “Talk” editors noted:

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A PERENNIAL NUISANCE…This Al Frueh drawing originally appeared in the Feb. 27, 1926 issue of the magazine.

To read more about “soft coal days,” see my previous post, “A Fine Mess.”

* * *

Elsewhere in the magazine, the New Yorker featured this ditty by P.G. Wodehouse:

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Columnist Lois Long (“Tables for Two”) was contemplating dance lessons to learn the “Black Bottom,” the dance craze that supplanted “The Charleston” in 1926.

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Apparently the dance called for special shoes, per this advertisement from the same issue:

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Up to now I’ve been posting images of often lavish ads featured mostly in the first sections of the magazine and on the front and back inside covers, but there were other, less expensive (and less artful) ads sprinkled in the back pages of the magazine, a tradition that continues to this day:

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Next time: Spring Fever…

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What to Drink During Prohibition

The Roaring Twenties were a strange confluence of the Puritan and libertine, perhaps best represented by Prohibition and the speakeasy night life it inspired. Many if not most of The New Yorker readers of the late 1920s were familiar with these establishments as well as with reliable bootleggers and rum runners. And for those of you following this blog we all know that “Tables for Two” columnist Lois “Lipstick” Long was THE voice of speakeasy and New York nightlife.

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May 29, 1926 cover by Stanley W. Reynolds.

I should point out here that Prohibition did not make consumption of alcohol illegal. The 18th Amendment prohibited the commercial manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages, but it did not prohibit their use.

So if you had a connection to a smuggler bringing whisky from Scotland via Canada, for example, you could enjoy a Scotch at home without too much trouble, although the prices could be high. “The Talk of the Town” editors regularly reported black market wine and liquor prices (I include an adjoining Julian de Miskey cartoon):

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Note the mention of pocket flasks, which were an important item in a purse or vest pocket when one went to a nightclub or restaurant, where White Rock or some other sparkling water was sold as a mixer for whatever you happened to bring with you. You see a lot of this type of advertisement in the Prohibition-era New Yorker:

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I’ll bet those grinning golfers have something in their bags besides clubs.

And then there were ads like these, which I find terribly sad:

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“The Talk of the Town” also commented on the recent visit of British writer Aldous Huxley, who told his New York hosts that he admired American writers Willa Cather and Sherwood Anderson, and he also had praise for writer and critic H.L. Mencken, whom he likened to a farmer “of the better type:”

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Aldous Huxley in April 1926. (Bettman/Corbis)

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Other odds and ends from this issue…a clever drawing by Al Frueh for the “Profile” feature on New York Governor Al Smith:

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I include a photo of Al Smith for comparison:

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New York Gov. Al Smith (NY Daily News)

And this bit from “Of All Things,” complete with bad pun/racial slur:

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New Yorker readers in 1926 had little reason to believe that in a decade Mussolini would try to make good on his statement and join Hitler in the next world war.

Here’s a couple more ads from the issue that are signs of those times. Note the listing of Florida locations for those New Yorkers who were flocking to that new winter vacation destination:

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And this ad for an electric refrigerator…for those who could afford such newfangled things. The ice man was still plenty busy in 1926, but his days were numbered.

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And finally, a nod to springtime, and this excerpt of an illustration by Helen Hokinson for the “Talk” section:

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Next Time: After a Fashion…

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The Circus Comes to Town

The Ringling Brothers Circus was in town, and The New Yorker marked the occasion with a profile of the surviving Ringlings, John and Charles. Writer Helena Huntington Smith noted that the brothers used a lowbrow profession to become multimillionaires, real estate kings (“They own “most of the west coast of Florida”) and even occasional patrons of the arts.

Speaking of lowbrow, circus freaks remained a big attraction in 1920s New York. Here is an image of the Ringling Brothers “Congress of Freaks” lineup from two years earlier, in 1924:

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Photograph by Edward Kelty, who took photos of the “Congress of Freaks” every year from 1924 to the mid 1930s.

The 1926 show at Madison Square Garden also featured elephants “dancing” the Charleston. One wonders how much these poor beasts were tortured:

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(Vintage Everyday)

And from the “Remember it’s 1926 Department,” we have this New Yorker obituary for famed Ringling circus freak Zip the Pinhead. Note that Zip was “owned” by a Captain O.K. White:

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Zip’s real name was William Henry Johnson. Thought to have been born with microcephaly (those with the condition were commonly called “pinheads), he might have merely possessed an oddly shaped head.

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Zip the pinhead (Wikipedia)

Audiences were often told that he was a wild man, or a missing link, and although it was assumed he was mentally deficient (the New Yorker article above suggested he had the mentality of a two-year-old child), Johnson’s sister said he could “converse like the average person, and with fair reasoning power.” She claimed his last words (he died at age 83) were, “Well, we fooled ’em for a long time, didn’t we?”

The New Yorker editors continued to marvel at the heights of new buildings, the latest being the Ritz Tower, which was to be the tallest residential building in the city:

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Here’s a postcard image of the Ritz Tower from the late 1920s. Note the airplane at left, added to emphasize the building’s height:

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At 41 stories and 541 feet, the Ritz was city’s tallest residential tower at the time. The tallest residential tower in NYC today is 432 Park Avenue. The 96-story tower is just shy of 1,400 feet:

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(Forbes)

Even taller residential towers are in the works.

Now, to end on a lighter note, a Whoops Sisters cartoon by Peter Arno–this is the first in which their trademark “Whoops” is uttered. Personally, I don’t find Arno’s Whoops Sisters all that funny. I guess you had to be there…

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and this “generation gap” observation by Helen Hokinson:

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Next Time: Batter Up

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The Last Laugh

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Dec. 26, 1925 cover by S.W. Reynolds

We close out The New Yorker’s first year with the magazine on firmer footing and many of its mainstay writers and artists firmly in place.

The Dec. 26, 1925 issue was the usual hodgepodge, but some writers did give a nod to the end of the year, including film critic Theodore Shane, who offered his list of the best ten moving pictures of 1925.

Shane’s favorite film by far was The Last Laugh, (the German title was Der letzte Mann, or The Last Man) a 1924 German film directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Emil Jannings (who would later win the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929). Shane referred to it as “the greatest picture ever made.” Released in the U.S. in 1925, the film was about a proud doorman who loses his job and tries to hide the fact from his friends and family. Shane usually reserved his highest praise for German cinema in his columns.

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Scene from The Last Laugh (1924) starring Emil Jannings.

Shane’s complete list of the ten best movies of 1925:

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For the worst films of the year, Shane suggested a tie between Drusilla With a Million, Lord Jim, Joanna, the Million Dollar Girl or Stella Dallas.

The New Yorker also commented on the murder of the irrepressible boxer Louis Mbarick Fall, popularly known as “Battling Siki.”

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“Battling Siki” in his heyday. (Wikipedia)

Born in Senegal, he was a light heavyweight boxer from 1912–1925, and briefly reigned as a light heavyweight champion. Known for his heavy drinking and carousing, on the night of Dec. 15, 1925, he was found dead near his 42nd Street apartment. He had been shot twice in the back at close range. He was 28.

In his column, “A Reporter at Large,” Morris Markey offered this observation on Battling Siki’s passing:

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The cartoonist I. Klein, on the other hand, contributed this strange stand-alone illustration for “The Talk of the Town” section:

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Also in “Talk” was this brief item about the United Fruit Company:

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United Fruit would be no laughing matter three years later with the Banana Massacre, which would claim the lives of an unknown number of workers who were striking for better working conditions in Columbia.

Art critic Murdock Pemberton offered a glowing review of an exhibit at the Montross Galleries by frequent New Yorker contributor Peggy Bacon:

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Peggy Bacon, The Whitney Studio Club, 1925. (Whitney Museum of American Art)
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Peggy Bacon (Smithsonian)

“Profiles” looked at Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr, “The Fifth Avenue Maverick.” William Boardman Knox wrote that the young Vanderbilt “is as alien to his blood as a marmoset to a gorilla.”

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In the “The Theatre,” critic Herman J. Mankiewicz pulled no punches when he declared Gilbert Seldes’ play The Wise Crackers “the worst play of the season” (Seldes was himself a noted critic and sometime New Yorker contributor):

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What’s more, the play was about a group of literate New Yorkers who gather to exchange witty barbs and sarcastically comment on the doings of the day. In other words, it was inspired by the Algonquin Round Table, which famously included Mankiewicz as a member.

Another Round Table notable was Robert Benchley, who contributed this piece for the last issue of the year:

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Lois Long offered her regrets for ever bringing up the subject of “The Charleston:”

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And just a few pages over, lessons were advertised for…The Charleston!

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And to close, here’s a little fun with hotel inspectors, courtesy of Al Frueh:

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Next Time: Fun in the sun in the New Year, 1926

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How Dry I Am

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Oct. 31 cover,  Julian de Miskey.

The woes of Prohibition were acutely felt by the readership of The New Yorker. The magazine responded in kind with its continued criticism of the law’s enforcement and particularly the tactics of Manhattan District Attorney Emory C. Buckner, whose agents continued to padlock restaurants and clubs suspected of selling alcohol.

The New Yorker previously called the padlocking tactic a “promotional stunt” that would ultimately backfire (I wrote about this in a previous blog post last March).

Both the “The Talk of the Town” and “Tables for Two” took aim at Buckner this time around. “Talk” led with this item, accompanied by the art of Johan Bull:

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“Talk” also made a call to action by “men of virtue:”

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Heck with statements. Lois Long just wanted to have some fun, and led her column, “Tables for Two,” with her own attack on Buckner and on the “stupidity” of establishments that were closed by Buckner’s agents (I include art that accompanied the column by Frank McIntosh–at least that is what I think the “FM” stands for; if I am in error, someone please correct me!):

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In a previous column (Oct. 17), Long pondered the popularity of a new dance, the “Charleston.” She closed her Oct. 31 column with “telegrams” from exemplary colleges in answer to the query: “Is the Charleston being done at college dances?”

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“W.J. Henderson wrote a lengthy article about the upcoming opera season at the Metropolitan Opera (it was opening with La Gioconda), and recalled the days after World War I when the once-popular German singers suddenly grew scarce on the American stage.

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The old Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway. The “Old Met” opened in 1883 and was rebuilt after a fire in 1892. The interior, shown here, was redesigned in 1903. This photo depicts a recital by pianist Josef Hofmann on November 28, 1937. The old Met was torn down in 1967 and replaced by a 40-story office tower. (Wikipedia)
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Site of the old Metropolitan Opera House today.

According to Henderson, this led to a general falling off of quality in the performances, a situation made even worse by the absence of the late, great Enrico Caruso on the Metropolitan’s stage.

In other items, John Tunis wrote about Illinois All-American halfback Red Grange in “Profiles,” calling him “a presentable youth of twenty-two…well-groomed, he would pass anywhere—even in the movies—for a clean type of American manhood.”

Tunis also noted that Grange had been offered a “half a million” to star in movies, and that professional football was ready to offer him a sum “that would cause even the once-mighty Ruth to blanch.” Grange, known as “The Galloping Ghost,” would later join the Chicago Bears and help to legitimize the National Football League (NFL).

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Howard (Real Photograph)

The young actor Leslie Howard, who was appearing on Broadway in Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat, wrote a humorous account of theatre life in “The Intimate Diary of An Opening Night.”

It was one of seven articles on the acting life that Howard (perhaps best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind) would write for The New Yorker between 1925 and 1927.

For the record, I include Howard’s first New Yorker article here:

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“Motion Pictures” looked at Buster Keaton’s new film, Go West…

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Cow and Keaton in Go West (1925) (silentology.com)

Theodore Shane wrote that what at first seemed to be a real weeper…

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…turned into a comic romp thanks to the introduction of the “sad-eyed cow…”

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And finally, in keeping with the Prohibition theme, here is a center-spread cartoon by Rea Irvin that seemed to depict the results of consuming too much bootleg booze:

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Next Time: Oh Behave…

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Fighting For Respect

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Oct. 17, 1925 cover by Max Ree.

The New Yorker catered to both Anglo- and Francophile readers in its early issues, especially in advertisements, although such pretensions were also satirized in its pages. The fledgling magazine, however, took great pains to show that it was something new, modern and very American.

A case in point is the treatment of artist George Bellows, whose untimely death from appendicitis earlier that year, at the age of 43, was followed by a memorial exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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George Bellows. (Wikipedia)

Bellows was from Columbus, Ohio, and was a pupil of fellow Midwesterner Robert Henri (Nebraska) at the New York School of Art. There Bellows became closely associated with Henri’s Ashcan School, a group of artists who advocated painting contemporary American society in all its grittiness.

In Bellows The New Yorker saw a fresh voice that gave form to the roiling life of a great city (Joseph Mitchell would later do the same with words for the magazine). The magazine also used the memorial exhibit as an opportunity to chide the Metropolitan Museum and its old-fashioned, Euro-centric tastes in art.

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One of Bellow’s last and perhaps most famous paintings from 1924 depicted the famous 1923 Dempsey-Firpo fight at the Polo Grounds (Wikipedia)

In the previous week’s issue (Oct. 10), “The Talk of the Town” noted that the upcoming memorial exhibition was “not quite the usual thing” for the Met (that is, to accord such recognition to an American artist). The “lanky Midwesterner” Bellows offered something unique:

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The same column noted that Bellows possessed something of a wit:

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In the Oct. 17 issue, art critic Murdock Pemberton offered these pointed observations of the opening of the memorial exhibition:

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Murdock Pemberton (New York Observer)

Murdock Pemberton himself is something of an interesting story. He co-hosted the luncheon that started the Algonquin Round Table, and was art critic at The New Yorker for more than seven years. The dismissal of this gifted and influential writer was probably one of Harold Ross’s biggest screw-ups as editor. You can read more about Pemberton in this Jan. 24, 2012, New Yorker article by Andrea Scott, who wrote that Pemberton “may be the most interesting person you’ve never heard of.”

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Sumner, by Johan Bull

The Oct. 17 issue also included an interview with John Saxton Sumner, who headed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, a state censorship body empowered to recommend obscenity cases to prosecutors.

Sumner was quoted as saying it “may be impossible to legislate morals into humanity. But we can legislate decent conduct into humanity.” He also offered these insights:

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As I mentioned in my last post, thanks to an ailing Babe Ruth and the slumping Yankees, college football took center stage in “Sports of the Week,” especially with “rivalry” games that drew crowds (and revenue) to Yankee Stadium. John R. Tunis continued his coverage of the sport with an account of a game between the North and the South (Penn State and Georgia Tech) in Yankee Stadium. Georgia Tech prevailed 16-7.

“Profiles” examined the life of Doctor Abraham Arden Brill, an Austrian-born psychiatrist who was the first psychoanalyst to practice in the United States and the first translator of Freud into English. It was no surprise that Brill found America ripe for this new type of therapy.

In “Tables for Two,” Lois Long pondered the popularity of “the Charleston” at smart night clubs:

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A Charleston competition at the Parody Club, New York in 1926. (Hulton Archive/Getty)

And to close, another political ad that seems out of place in The New Yorker:

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There’s something chilling about the ad. Perhaps it’s because the unsmiling faces of Tammany Hall suggest more a rogue’s gallery than a political line-up. As we know, Walker will get elected and go down in scandal in 1932, with McKee then serving as acting mayor for remainder of Walker’s term–just three months.

Next Time: A French Twist.

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