The Wayward Press

Robert Benchley is remembered today as an American humorist, and his funny side was on display in his New Yorker theater reviews and other contributions. It was his background as a journalist, however, that shown through in his column “The Wayward Press.”

Oct. 10, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Benchley’s more serious side as a reporter (though still sprinkled with wit) demonstrated his ability to expose the conspiratorial nature of the 1930s press — which seemed to be in bed with moneyed interests — and decry its insatiable appetite for sensationalism. His October 10 column took aim at the coverage of the death of banking heir Benjamin Collings, who was murdered on Long Island Sound while aboard his yacht, Penguin. The investigation went on for weeks with scant developments, but that didn’t stop the newspapers from trying to squeeze every ounce of blood from this turnip.

The New York Daily News milked the incident for all its worth, the heading of this first article featuring photos of the slain Benjamin Collings (far left), his widow (and briefly a suspect) Lillian Collings, as well as an image of their five-year-old daughter, Barbara. According to Lillian, all three were sleeping aboard the family yacht Penguin when two men paddled a canoe up to their boat. When Ben went on deck to confront the pair, these “pirates” (as she called them) seized control of the boat, and threw Ben overboard. According to Lillian, the men forced her into the canoe, then cut the Penguin’s anchor and set it adrift with little Barbara still on board. While the girl was quickly rescued by another yachtsman, the “pirates” deposited Lillian in a moored motorboat on Oyster Bay before disappearing into the night. The Suffolk County DA found Lillian’s account unbelievable, and newspapers subsequently described her story as bizarre and illogical. The Daily News headline below indicates Lillian’s family wanted her interrogation to end…

…lacking any other details, the Daily News nevertheless kept the story alive with features such as this one below that described Five Stages in Life of Mrs. Benjamin Collings, Widowed by Yacht Murder

…and in case readers still wanted more, the paper rehashed the whole thing in photos in its Sept. 12 edition…

A few days after the yacht incident the body of Ben Collings washed up on the North Shore, his hands bound and his skull bashed in. The Suffolk County DA then began hauling in pairs of suspects who somewhat matched Lillian’s description — a 50-year-old man with gray hair and a skinny teenager — but none were quite right. The crime has never been solved.

Benchley concluded his column with some quotations which he “did not believe”…

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And Now For Something Ironic…

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White teased New York Stock Exchange President Richard Whitney for blaming the market crash on “human vanity and selfishness,” when it was indeed those qualities that drove the markets in the first place. Before the decade was out Whitney would succumb to the very vices he named, and would serve three years and four months at Sing Sing for embezzlement.

HE DID TIME, THEN HE DID SOME MORE TIME…Richard Whitney made the cover of the Feb. 26, 1934 issue of Time magazine for his work as president of the New York Stock Exchange. At left, Whitney in 1937. He was sentenced to five to ten years for embezzlement, but was released early from Sing Sing for good behavior. He went on to a simpler life, managing a dairy farm and then a textile company before his death in 1974 at age 86. (Wikipedia/Time)

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The What Goes Up Department

E.B. White also commented on the latest edition of the Goodyear Blimp, christened Columbia, which he spotted hanging around the Empire State Building. Note E.B. White’s last line

Columbia was flying around the Empire State Building because Goodyear was running a sightseeing service in which passengers paid $3 for a 15-minute flight around Manhattan. The blimp also performed publicity stunts such as delivering newspapers to a man standing on the Empire State’s mooring mast — that particular stunt was supposedly a test to see if airships could anchor on the mast for passenger loading and unloading (and as we know, they couldn’t and wouldn’t).

Just four months after White watched Columbia hover over Manhattan, the airship would indeed bust into a thousand pieces, meeting its demise near the Queens airport (today’s LaGuardia). Caught in unexpected high winds, Columbia dipped into the ground, tearing off its landing gear and bending its propellers. The ground crew tried to secure the blimp but an updraft ripped the airship from their hands and sent it sailing over Flushing Bay.

As Columbia once again drifted back over land, the 23-year pilot Prescott Dixon ordered his chief mechanic, John Blair, to pull a rip cord that would release most of the air from the blimp. As Blair reached from the cabin for the cord the blimp shifted, and Blair fell to his death. Columbia then knocked two men off a warehouse roof (injuring them), then struck a factory and some power lines before crashing along the tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Dixon survived after being extricated from the crumpled gondola.

CHRISTENED WITH A BOTTLE OF LIQUID AIR, the Goodyear Blimp Columbia was readied for its inaugural flight over Akron, Ohio, in July 1931.
A SHORT LIFE…Just seven months after its inaugural flight, Columbia crashed near Flushing Bay on Feb. 12, 1932. (kathrynsreport.com)

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When Bridges Were Crowd-Pleasers

“The Talk of the Town” announced the imminent opening of the Jeffreys Hook Bridge, to be known thence as the George Washington Bridge:

GET OUT YOUR TOP HAT…New Yorkers turned out in droves to mark the official opening of the George Washington Bridge on Oct. 24, 1931. Gov. Morgan F. Larson of New Jersey, left, and Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, right, did the ribbon honors at the dedication. (New Haven Register/AP)

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They Couldn’t Say ‘Hooters’ Either

In these coarser times it is hard to believe that 89 years ago the word “bosom” was a “no-no” on the nation’s airwaves, per this “Talk” item…

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An Actor’s Actor

Theater critic Robert Benchley wasn’t the only one who noticed the talents of newcomer Charles Laughton in his New York stage debut — Hollywood would immediately come calling for the 32-year-old English actor:

WE’LL KEEP HIM…Cicely Oates as Annie Marble and Charles Laughton as William Marble in the 1931 play Payment Deferred. (Museum of the City of New York)

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Kinda Long For Being Short

Humorist Frank Sullivan claimed to be following the trend for shorter short stories by turning in this piece with an editor’s note longer than the story itself:

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Lurid Lit

Our dear Dorothy Parker is back with another of her entertaining book columns, and in this installment we have her taking on the world of literary and not-so-literary sex romps. Excerpts:

DIRTY LITTLE BOOKS?…The three books featured in Dorothy Parker’s column included, from left, Young and Healthy by Donald Henderson Clarke (issued here under a different title in a pulp 1948 Novel Library edition); Theodore Wilde’s Moonblind, which featured a hermaphrodite character and homosexual encounters; and although attributed to Anonymous, Lady Chatterley’s Husbands was actually written by Anthony Gudaitis, aka Anton Gud, who often wrote anonymously for erotica publisher Samuel Roth. Although it was publicized as a sequel to D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Gud’s book actually had less sex than the Lawrence original. After all, in the sequel Lady Chatterley gets tired of horny old Mellors. (Goodreads/Amazon)

…and before we leave Dorothy, please note her last line in the review, where she quotes Carl Rose’s famed 1928 cartoon (with caption by E.B. White)…

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From Our Advertisers

Just a couple quick ones (I will have more in the next installment)…Lord & Taylor showed young New Yorkers how to look smart for the fall (Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store in the United States (founded 1826), recently closed all 38 of its stores due to the pandemic, and it was announced in August that Lord & Taylor would be liquidated. Apparently its name will continue as an online-only business…

…and Helen Hokinson offered this illustration of one of her “girls” shilling for Frigidaire refrigerators…

…and two more from Helen in the Oct. 10 cartoons…

…exploring men’s attitudes toward the opposite sex…

Garrett Price visited a seemingly unappetizing banquet…

Kemp Starrett gave us a man looking at life on the bright side…

William Steig explored home decor…

Barbara Shermund found some bedtime gossip…

…and recalling our earlier “Talk” item regarding bosoms, here’s Peter Arno

Next Time: Monkey Business…

 

 

Bonfire of the Vanities

When Earl Carroll’s Vanities hit the Broadway revue scene in 1923, it faced strong competition from George White’s Scandals and the long-running Ziegfeld Follies. Carroll’s answer: More of everything.

Sept. 5, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

That included more nudity than the other revues. Critics, including the New Yorker’s Robert Benchley, found the nudity gratuitous, a titillating distraction from what was otherwise a mess of a show. It also landed Carroll in court from time to time on charges of public indecency. All of this, of course, was just more publicity to drive audiences to his theatre at 753 Seventh Avenue, which he built in 1922 and then partially tore down just nine years later to replace it with an even grander venue. This is where Benchley found himself on the evening of August 27 — at the grand opening of the Earl Carroll Theatre and the 1931 edition of the Vanities. Benchley found nothing grand about it:

AUTOGRAPHS, ANYONE?…Accompanied by his Vanities showgirls, Earl Carroll leaves the Essex Market Police Court on July 20,1930, after appearing to answer charges of public indecency. Police raided a Vanities matinee on July 9, arresting eleven including famed burlesque dancer Faith Bacon, who performed in nothing but fans made of ostrich feathers. No doubt police were tipped off by critics who called the 1930 edition the “nudest” cast in American theatre history. From the looks on their faces, it seems even the police enjoyed the spectacle. (Worthpoint)
IS THERE A PROBLEM, OFFICER?…Faith Bacon in a less-revealing pose with the ostrich-feather fans that brought the police ‘a calling. (fanpix.net)

Carroll’s ambitions were always big, whether it was the size or lavishness of his stage shows or the Art Deco theatre (designed by George W. Keister) he erected in 1931 in answer to Flo Ziegfeld’s 1927 Joseph Urban-designed theatre on Sixth Avenue. With 3,000 seats, Carroll’s theatre was nearly twice the size of Ziegfeld’s.

THEY DON’T COME FOR THE SCRIPTWRITING…Earl Carroll made it clear what audiences could expect in his 1931 Art Deco-style theatre, which featured black velvet-covered walls relieved with gold and silver-colored highlights. Its 3,000 seats made it one of the largest theatres in the world. Clockwise, from top left, portrait of Carroll (a gift from the 1930 Vanities showgirls) flanked by busts of Vanities girls Doris Andrese and Beryl Wallace in the theatre lobby; sign above theatre entrance; a two-page spread from the theatre’s “Beauty Souvenir” booklet; cover of the booklet, featuring singer Lillian Roth. (New York Historical Society).
DECO DRAMA…Clockwise, from top left, Earl Carroll circa 1925; ceiling detail inside the Earl Carroll Theatre; mezzanine lounge; the stage. (New York Historical Society).

The show itself left Benchley baffled, a mishmash of lights, colors, and effects including a drooling dinosaur that dropped a naked woman on stage for a dance number…

LAUNCH SITE….The Vanities stage helped launch the careers of many entertainers. Clockwise, from top left, undated photo of a Vanities production — some shows would feature more than 100 women on stage at one time; singer Lillian Roth was a star attraction; Vanities alumni included William Demarest (Uncle Charlie!), Jack Benny and Vincente Minnelli. (assumption.edu/flickr.com/classicmoviehub.com/amazon.com/sensesofcinema.com)

This wasn’t last word from the New Yorker on the new theatre; the Sept. 12 issue featured these observations by Creighton Peet:

In the end, Carroll’s ambitions were too big for the deepening Depression, and just six months after his theatre’s opening he would lose it to creditors. The property would be snapped up by rival Florenz Ziegfeld and renamed the Casino, but the Ziegfeld connection would be short-lived; Ziegfeld would die a few months later in July 1932. Later that year another rival, George White, would take over the venue to stage his Music Hall Varieties, which ended in 1933 with middling results. The theatre would go through several more tenants — including Billy Rose — until 1940 when the discount “dime store” Woolworth’s would move in, demolishing the lobby and walling off the remaining ceiling and walls. Woolworth’s would close the location in the late 1980s — the store, and the last remnants of the Earl Carroll Theatre, would be demolished in 1990.

CLOSING NUMBER…At left, a sneak peek behind the false walls of Woolworth’s in 1988 shows a detail of the theatre’s proscenium, ceiling and sidewall. At right, top to bottom, the second Earl Carroll Theatre at 7th Avenue & 50th Street; the Woolworth’s store that replaced it, circa 1980; the site today. (Large image from the book Lost Broadway Theatres, via drivingfordeco.com/Google Maps)

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From Our Advertisers

Fall is upon us, and so the social season begins, according to the Hotel St. Regis…

…and what better way to prepare for the season than to acquire a new mink coat…

…maybe politics and world affairs were more your bag, in which case you probably wanted to get a subscription to the Herald Tribune and read the latest from commentator Walter Lippmann

…the makers of Marlboro cigarettes, an upstart brand that initially targeted women, continued with their prize contests, but now they began courting men as well…

…on the other hand, the more established brand Chesterfield had the resources to run a color back-cover ad with endorsements from the brother-sister dance team Fred and Adele Astaire

…Fleishmann’s continued to run their full-page ads touting the wonders of daily yeast consumption (“Eat three cakes a day”). The ads were there because Raoul Fleishmann used his wealth from the family baking business to keep the New Yorker afloat during its fledgling years…

…Farrar and Rinehart announced the arrival of Otto Soglow’s first book, Pretty Pictures

…here is the cover of the book…

…and we move on to the cartoons with the character that would make Soglow rich and famous…The Little King

…although Fleischmann likely saved the New Yorker with large infusions of cash, its cartoonists, including Gardner Rea, still took an occasional poke at the company’s health claims…

…anticipating his “Small Fry” cartoons, William Steig finds two of them examining the wonders of human physiology…

Rea Irvin looked in on some stuffy Western Union censors…

…newcomer Robert Day illustrated the challenges of a doorman (Day would be a longtime contributor)…

Garrett Price found humor abuzz between the bold and the meek…

Alan Dunn tracked down a clueless hunter…

…and we end with Leonard Dove, who takes flight and anticipates our next installment…

Next Time: A Big Bird…

 

Asphalt Jungle

The zoos of yesteryear were joyless places, that is, if you were one of the animals. Children squealed with fear and delight at the sight of a caged lion, and many an adult had fun tossing peanuts at elephants or teasing enraged gorillas locked behind bars; but if you were a zoo animal in 1931, life was endless hours of boredom, sprinkled with moments of terror and humiliation.

Aug. 15, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

It is instructive to look back 89 years and see how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go, to see our fellow creatures as more than curiosities and amusements to be captured and gawked at, and to see their environments as something to be preserved, not only for their survival but for ours as well.

LIFE BEHIND BARS…Left, a zookeeper with chimps at the Central Park Zoo, 1936. Right, a rhino paces in a barred enclosure, 1937. (nycgovparks.org)

E.B. White paid a visit to the Central Park Zoo, and found it wanting in a number of respects:

Many zoos back then were more collections of curiosities than places where you could learn about various habitats. So when David Sarnoff, president of RCA, bagged a live opossum in the South, the critter was given a new home in an antelope enclosure, per this item in the Dec. 20, 1931 New York Times:

The Central Park Zoo was established in the 1860s as a “menagerie” behind the Arsenal, and by the turn of the century attracted millions of visitors to its displays of exotic animals.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL…Postcard image of the Menagerie in Central Park, New York, 1905. (Museum of the City of New York—MCNY)
ANIMAL ATTRACTION…Postcard image of folks enjoying caged birds at the Menagerie, 1905. (MCNY)
O GIVE ME A HOME…In the early days of zoos, animals were presented in cages and fenced enclosures with no hint as to what their natural habitat might look like. Clockwise, from top left, “Fatima” the hippo, image from an 1896 stereograph card; a 1911 photo of a trainer and a dog perched on top of a hapless elephant; a bull bison around the turn of the century; a group of people observe animals in cages at the Central Park Menagerie, 1895. (Library of Congress/nycgovparks.org/MCNY)

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He’s Your Future

The New Yorker featured two-part profile of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who unbeknownst to writer Milton MacKaye would soon become the next president of the United States. Two excerpts (not continuous)…

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From Our Advertisers

Ah yes, the first time I visited the Empire State Building’s observation deck (in the 1970s) a heavy smog enveloped the city (the air is much cleaner today). I like how the promoters spin disappointment into an opportunity — “The mysterious beauty of the city has a million constantly changing aspects”…

…if you were looking for bluer skies, Bermuda could have been an option if you had the means…

…or you could have stayed closer to home at a Long Island beach resort, as Helen Hokinson illustrated, and as we segue into our cartoons…

I. Klein gave us a very unscientific, albeit humorous view of genetics…

Richard Decker redefined the meaning of “volunteers”…

…and William Steig summoned the advice of Dorothy Dix, a forerunner of “Dear Abby” who was the most widely read female journalist of her time…

We move on to the Aug. 22, 1931 issue…

Aug. 22, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

…in which James Thurber wrote about his experience with early television in “The Talk of the Town”…

NO CABLE BILL, YET…Charles Francis Jenkins demonstrates his “Radiovisor” console television in 1929. At right, the inner workings featured a rotating disc punctured with tiny holes, each projecting a line across the glass screen to compose an image. As Thurber noted, the pictures commonly were too dark for viewers to see anything more than silhouettes. (earlytelevision.org)

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The Other Moving Pictures

The movies still had nothing to fear from television in 1931, and Hollywood continued to draw large audiences to “Pre-Code” films that featured doses of sex and violence. Novelist Viña Delmar gained famed in 1928 with her suggestively titled book Bad Girl, so when it was adapted into a film, audiences came running — even if the screen adaptation proved to be a bit tamer than the novel that inspired it. Critic John Mosher observed:

I’M JUST A LITTLE BAD…Sally Eilers played the title character in Bad Girl with co-star James Dunn. The film won two Oscars in 1932 for Best Director (Frank Borzage) and Best Writing, Adaptation (Edwin J. Burke). (IMDB)

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Chic Chapeau

The Empress Eugénie hat was named for 19th century French empress Eugénie de Montijo, who was known as a fashion trendsetter. The hat was revived in 1930 after Greta Garbo was seen wearing a version of one in the popular film Romance. E.B. White was not exaggerating when he noted (in his “Notes and Comment”) that the jaunty hat was seen on “every other head” in the city.
 

LOOK WHAT YOU STARTED…Greta Garbo sported an Empress Eugénie hat in the 1930 film Romance, setting off a fashion craze that persisted through much of the decade. At right, Kemp Starrett referenced the trend in this Aug. 8, 1931 cartoon in the New Yorker. (Pinterest)

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From Our Advertisers

Speaking of trends, these “roughies” were all the rage among the young folks, in the dorms and on the beach…

…one trend I wasn’t aware still persisted in 1931 was a top hat and tails for an evening out among the smart set…

…according to this ad, if you were a “smart” and fashionable New Yorker, then you needed an “Inebriates” themed cocktail set…

…examples of the glassware for sale on Worthpoint…

Dr. Seuss was still busy selling pesticide with this four-panel ad…

…on to the cartoons, we start with James Thurber

…and Rea Irvin continued to experiment with various motifs, this time an Egyptian-themed cartoon referencing the “wine bricks” sold by enterprising vineyards during Prohibition…

Peter Arno found a big surprise during a mansion tour…

…and we end with Otto Soglow

…and Richard Decker…both cartoons reminded me of Al Jaffee’s Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions

…I grew up reading Mad magazine, and always looked forward to Jaffee’s fold-ins…he just retired from Mad at the young age of 99, so we conclude with one of his Snappy Answers panels from Mad #98, Oct. 1965…

Next Time: Unnatural History…

 

An American Classic

Immigration over the centuries transformed New York City into a cosmopolitan metropolis, with many of those migrants drawn from America’s hinterlands. What they found in the city was not only economic opportunity, but also a place to grow artistically and intellectually.

Aug. 8, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Such was the case of Willa Cather, who while living in New York City would draw on her Nebraska childhood to write a succession of novels about prairie life and its people (including My Antonia and O Pioneers!) that would culminate in a 1923 Pulitzer Prize.

Louise Bogan, in 1931 a new poetry editor for the New Yorker (and a poet herself), wrote a profile of Cather for the Aug. 8 issue. An excerpt:

TWO FACES…Hugo Gellert rendering of Willa Cather for the profile; undated photo at right gives you some idea of the look Cather aimed at the affected behavior of others. (New York Times)
FORMATIVE YEARS…Clockwise, from top left, Willa Cather as a student at the University of Nebraska in the early 1890s; classmates at Nebraska included author and activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Alvin Johnson, later a co-founder of New York’s New School. Both Cather and Fisher took fencing lessons from John J. Pershing, who taught military science at Nebraska; Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, Neb., and the prairie that inspired much of her writing. (news.unl.edu/Wikipedia/new school.edu/literaryamerica.net)
CITY LIFE…Clockwise, from top: S. S. McClure, Willa Cather, Ida Tarbell, and Will Irvin visit in Washington Square Park, 1924; Cather in the meadow of High Mowing farm near Jaffrey, N.H., where she wrote part of My Antonia; on the cover of Time, Aug. 3, 1931; one of Cather’s New York residences at 82 Washington Place. (Indiana University/Southwick Collection, University of Nebraska/time.com/jschumacher.typepad.com)

Bogan concluded the profile with this note about Lèon Bakst, who was commissioned in 1923 to paint a portrait of Cather while she visiting Paris (image courtesy Omaha Public Library):

My dear late friend Susan Rosowski, who was a preeminent Cather scholar, wrote that Cather was “the first to give immigrants heroic stature in serious American literature.” In these times when immigration is so hotly debated, it is worth revisiting My Antonia and O Pioneers! to recall what once made America truly great.

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One Arm Restaurant

If you wanted to get lunch fast and cheap in 1931 you might have stopped at one of John Thompson’s New York restaurants. According to Tom Miller (daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com), there were no waiters in Thompson’s restaurants. “Customers purchased foods like cold corned beef, cold boiled ham, smoked boiled tongue or hot frankfurters at a counter. They then took their trays to ‘one arm’ chairs lined up along the wall. There were no tables; instead customers ate at what was similar to turn-of-the-century school desks.” E.B. White stopped in for a visit:

YOU CAN’T MISS IT…John Thompson’s name is emblazoned no less than four times on the front of his restaurant at No. 33 Park Row. No-frills interior featured “one-arm” chairs and a self-service coffee urn. (Museum of the City of New York /daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com)

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Cinematic Eyeful

The Pre-Code comedy-drama Transatlantic was light on plot but heavy on deep-focus cinematography (by James Wong Howe) that wowed New Yorker critic John Mosher in 1931…and still wows critics today.

High Seas Hijinks…The pre-code comedy-drama Transatlantic wowed critic John Mosher not so much for its storyline as for its style and cinematography. Clockwise, from left, Edmund Lowe has his hands full with Lois Moran, Greta Nissen and Myrna Loy. (IMDB)
NIFTY NOIR…John Mosher loved the avant-garde, noir-ish stylings of Transatlantic. This film by director William K. Howard and cinematographer James Wong Howe is still admired today. A MoMA cinema site notes that the film’s style anticipates Citizen Kane by ten years. (pre-code.com)

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From Our Advertisers

We begin with another socialite endorsing Pond’s Cold Cream — Mrs. Potter d’Orsay Palmer nee Maria Eugenia Martinez de Hoz. She was wife No. 2 of Potter d’Orsay Palmer, son of the wealthy family of Chicago Palmer House fame…they would divorce in 1937, and the playboy Potter would marry two more times before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1939 (the result of a drunken brawl). Maria Eugenia would remarry and return to her homeland of Argentina to raise a family…

…it seems Maria Eugenia didn’t limit herself to endorsing cold cream, as this next ad attests (from the May, 1934 Delineator magazine)…

…Maria Eugenia endorsed Camels because they were marketed to women back then, as were Marlboro cigarettes, the makers of which continued their silly handwriting and jingle-writing contests to promote the brand (note the examples “Miss Eileen Fitzgerald” offered of what defined a modern lifestyle)…

…the makers of Chesterfield cigarettes, on the other hand, originally marketed their product to men, but they made sure women were included in the copy beneath the image — “yes, there’s a big woman vote” …

…you may recall the subtle ways Liggett & Myers began to lure women smokers back in 1928 with this ad campaign…

…you see a lot of tobacco ads because cigarette manufacturers were one of the few industries still turning a profit during the first years of the Depression…men and women were smoking like crazy, maybe to calm their nerves over the performance of their refrigerators…

…one could always calm the nerves by taking a spin in a new Plymouth, bargain-priced at just $535…

…and we have another Arno-esque ad by Herbert Roese, touting the wonders of “New York’s Most Interesting Newspaper”…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with this wonderful spot drawing by Barbara Shermund

…and an illustration by Reginald Marsh of a Coney Island crowd that graced facing pages in “The Talk of the Town”…

…here’s one of four drawings Walter Schmidt contributed to the New Yorker between 1931 and 1933…

Perry Barlow illustrated the joys of dining out with the kiddies…

…back to Barbara Shermund, who eavesdropped on her debs…

Kemp Starrett gave us a proud moment at the county fair…

I. Klein offered up a new twist on the term “family planning”…

John Held Jr assessed the aesthetic value of chunky mission-style furniture…

…and Peter Arno reappeared in the cartoons with this full-page illustration of some desperate climbers…

Next Time: Asphalt Jungle…

Firecracker Lane

When fireworks were still allowed on the streets of New York City, Firecracker Lane was the place to go for all your pyrotechnic needs.

Theodore Haupt illustrated holiday travelers for the Fourth of July issue in 1931.

By 1931, however, fireworks had been banned across the greater New York City area, so customers visiting Firecracker Lane — a short row of sellers on Park Place between Broadway and Church Street — had to find a friendly burg beyond the metropolis to shoot off their Independence Day arsenals.

Before the city clamped down on the fun, Firecracker Lane did a bustling trade, and fireworks were even manufactured at sites around the metro area. But after a number of explosions and fires, the city closed down the fireworks factories, and by 1931 Fireworks Lane itself was on its last leg. “The Talk of the Town” visited what remained, and reminisced about the glory days.

A STREET WITH SOME SIZZLE…The famed Pain’s Fireworks company occupied this building on Firecracker Lane, photo circa 1903. At right, a young woman promoting Pain’s latest novelty, the “Chinese Dragon,” in the 1920s. (MCNY)
HAVING A BLAST…In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pain’s staged massive themed fireworks displays, including the incredible The Last Days of Pompeii show on Manhattan Beach, seen here during its 1903 Season. (heartofconeyisland.com)
BEFORE THERE WERE MOVIES, entertainment companies were fond of putting on spectacular shows like The Last Days of Pompeii on Manhattan Beach. Illustration from an 1885 edition of Harper’s Weekly. (heartofconeyisland.com)
LOCATION, LOCATION…Explosions at fireworks factories in New York and New Jersey put an end to the manufacture of fireworks in the area by 1930. Above, a July 1901 explosion of a fireworks factory in a Paterson, N.J. tenement resulted in the deaths of 17 people who lived above factory. The New York Times reported “So great was the force of the blast, that a boy playing in the street a half a block away was lifted from his feet and hurled against an iron fence, and had one of his legs broken.” (Courtesy Paterson Fire History, via boweryboyshistory.com)

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Not Mum on Mumford

In the previous post we were introduced to critic Lewis Mumford, who excoriated plans for the new Radio City, now known as Rockefeller Center. In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White added his own two cents:

PERHAPS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN A CAKE…Even the promoters of the Radio City project looked uncertain of their scheme in this March 1931 photo. (drivingfordeco.com)

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From Our Advertisers

New Yorkers who wanted to get away from the steamy streets of Manhattan (almost no one had air conditioning in 1931) could catch the cooling breezes of the Atlantic on any number of cruise lines that plied the Eastern Seaboard and Canadian Maritimes during the summer…here the French Line offered a six-day “Triangle Cruise”…

…while Cunard offered a similar excursion (employing the cartooning skills of H.O. Hofman) that allowed passengers to “do the ocean” in just four days…

…to earn the ever-shrinking travel dollar during the Depression, both the Red Star and White Star lines offered their giant ocean liners for half- and full-week cruises to the Maritimes, Red Star even throwing in some on-board entertainment, claiming to be the first to do so “on any ocean”…

A SCRAPPED LOT…From top, the Belgenland, Majestic and Olympic. These great ships that once ferried passengers in high style between Europe and the States had been reduced to taking folks on short cruises and even one-day excursions due to the Depression. By the mid-1930s the Belgenland and Olympic (once the world’s largest ship) were sold for scrap. The Majestic was scuttled a few years later. (Wikipeda)

…I’m not sure where this pair is headed, but the angle suggests they just drove off a cliff…

…if cliff diving wasn’t your thing, you could tool around in a bright red Dodge boat…

…or be easily amused like this guy on the right, who gets his jollies from the abundance of ice cubes in his fridge…

…over at Essex House we find a more reserved scene, the “well-born” father and son gloating over their Central Park view…

…the Essex House might have been “all that,” but Dad and Junior would have to reconsider their social rank against a newcomer — the Waldorf-Astoria, reborn on Park Avenue…

…on to our cartoons, this couple illustrated by Garrett Price might consider something with a larger balcony…

Otto Soglow’s Little King took his Little Prince out for some air…

Kemp Starrett showed us a chap who contemplated the passing of time along with the passing of his timepiece…

I. Klein updated the theme of a damsel in distress…

…the growing popularity of Ping-Pong gave James Thurber some material to explore the battle of the sexes…

…and Barbara Shermund left us poolside with a couple of eggheads…

…on to our July 11, 1931 issue…

July 11, 1931 cover by Rose Silver.

…we find E.B. White taking his sweetheart, Katharine Angell White (referred to here as his “best girl”) out for a date at Coney Island…

A PLACE FOR ROMANCE…It’s not them, but this couple visiting Coney Island in 1928 (photo by Walker Evans) will serve well as our stand-ins for E.B. and Katharine White on their date to Coney. At right, the famous “Tunnels of Love.” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Pinterest)
AND OTHER DIVERSIONS…Another famous and rather lurid Coney attraction was the wax museum, which featured dioramas based on headlines of the day. The biggest attractions were those featuring famous crime scenes, gruesome effects included. (Museum of the City of New York)
IT WAS A LIVING…Among other big attractions at Coney were the sideshow “freaks” White mentioned in his article. The photo above, from 1929, is by Edward J. Kelty. (artblart.com)

 *  *  *

On the Waterfront

The 1954 film by the same name featured the murderous mob boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who ruled the waterfront’s stevedores with an iron fist. The reality was just as brutal, if not more so along the Brooklyn waterfront in the early 20th century, where the reign of a crime boss was as short as his life span. Alva Johnston reports:

TOUGH NEIGHBORHOOD…Midcentury view of the Brooklyn waterfront. (thenewyorkmafia.com)

Dinnie Meehan’s widow, Anna Lonergan, had the distinction of being shot at the side of two successive husbands; after Meehan was murdered, Anna married “White Hand” gangster Harry Reynolds. Johnston, who referred to Anna Lonergan as “the Brunhild of the longshore cycle,” concluded his piece with a look at the “last of the great leaders,” Red Donnelly, also known as “Cute Charlie”…

HARD KNOCKS…“Peg Leg” Lonergan was the final leader of the waterfront’s “White Hand Gang.” He was gunned down on Dec. 26, 1925, after a short reign as boss. He was just 25 years old when he died. (Pinterest)

 *  *  *

The Show Must Go On

With the glory days of vaudeville quickly receding into the past, Flo Ziegfeld was nevertheless determined to keep his “Follies” alive at his eponymous theatre. Robert Benchley stopped by for a look at the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.

CARE FOR A SMOKE?…Program cover for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931. At right, Ziegfeld star Ruth Etting, who portrayed a cigarette girl in the show’s “Club Piccadilly” skit. A note of trivia: Etting and I attended the same high school (but not at the same time!). (Playbill/Wikimedia Commons)
GLORY BE…Inside pages of the program featured some of the “Ziegfeld Beauties” appearing in the show. (Playbill)

 *  *  *

Gross

Back in the day some entrepreneurial types would kill a large whale, stuff it full of sawdust and formaldehyde, and then take it on the road to parade in front of gawkers with spare nickels in their pockets. E.B. White observed the fate of one such specimen:

YES, THIS WAS A THING…Before the days of Jacques Cousteau and Animal Planet, this is how some folks got their first and likely only look at a real whale, even if it was pumped full of sawdust and formaldehyde.

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

This small back page ad invited New Yorkers to the cooling breezes atop the Hotel Bossert in Brooklyn Heights, once referred to as the “Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn”…

Its rooftop restaurant — the Marine Roof — was a famous hangout. When the Brooklyn Dodgers won the World Series in 1955, this is where they celebrated…

(brownstoner.com)

Dr. Seuss was still making a living illustrating advertisements for Flit insecticide…

…”my eyes are up here”…says the woman who uses Coty brand lipstick…

…on to our cartoonists, we have Garrett Price also examining the challenges of playing Ping-Pong…

Perry Barlow was at the seaside with a precocious beach-goer…

Carl Rose showed us a Boy Scout after his encounter with the Red Menace…

Kemp Starrett weighed the advantages of air travel…

Otto Soglow surprised us with this undercover operation…

…and we end with James Thurber, and the price of literary fame…

Next Time: The Black Eagle…

 

 

From Bad to Awful

In the previous issue, New Yorker film critic John Mosher examined the morals of pre-code, “underworld films” such as Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar. Mosher didn’t seem all that impressed with these new gangster films, that is, until James Cagney lent his talents to The Public Enemy.

May 2, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Despite its violence (by yesterday’s standards), Mosher believed that even the preachers and various women’s committees who decried the sex and violence in pre-code movies would have little to gripe about with The Public Enemy, since it clearly depicted the wages of the sins of Tom Powers, a bootlegger on the rise portrayed by Cagney.

YOU AGAIN?…New Yorker film critic John Mosher thought very little of Jean Harlow’s acting, but Warner Brothers heavily promoted their new sex symbol, giving her equal billing even though she contributed little to the film. In the previous issue, Mosher had reviewed the film Iron Man, which also featured Harlow. He found it distressing that it was her “platinum blonde” status, rather than her acting, that landed her in that picture. (IMDB)

WOMEN IN HIS LIFE…James Cagney played a small-time bootlegger, Tom Powers, who rose in the criminal underworld in Public Enemy. Top left: Powers with Gwen Allen (Jean Harlow), a woman with a weakness for bad men. Top right: Joan Blondell portrayed Mamie, the girlfriend of Powers’ friend, Matt Doyle (Edward Woods). Blondell, one of the biggest stars of the 1930s, worked often with Cagney. In 1930 they were in Penny Arcade on Broadway and co-starred in the film Sinner’s Holiday. They would make several more films together after Public Enemy. Bottom photo: Tom smashes a grapefruit into the face of his first girlfriend, Kitty (Mae Clarke). Although this is one of Public Enemy’s most iconic scenes, Clarke was uncredited in the film. (IMDB)
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU’RE NAUGHTY…Top, Tom Powers (Cagney) and his buddy, Matt Doyle (Woods) shoot it out in an alleyway. Bottom, the film ends with one of cinema’s greatest death scenes — awaiting the return of his brother to the family home, Mike Powers (Donald Cook) opens the door to be greeted by Tom’s corpse, which falls over the threshold. Just in case the audience didn’t get the message, Warner Brothers included this epilogue after the death scene. (IMDB/YouTube)

 *  *  *

Flag of a Father

Speaking of morality, no voice was louder, or carried farther, than that of Charles Edward Coughlin (1891-1979), known familiarly as “Father Coughlin,” an enormously popular radio priest who had an estimated following of 30 million listeners in the 1930s. E.B White took notice of this phenomenon, and also the Father’s stand against “internationalism,” which in a few years would morph into a virulent nationalism and anti-semitism that would find the Father finding common cause with Hitler and Mussolini. Yes, those guys. But for now, we are still in 1931…

SAVING SOULS?…Fr. Charles Coughlin preached nationalism and anti-semitism in his widely broadcast radio show in the 1930s. He was one of the first demagogues to effectively use the mass media to his advantage.

 *  *  *

Paradise Lost

Far up the Henry Hudson Parkway, just before you cross Spuyten Duyvil Creek (Harlem River) into Younkers, is a park with a history that goes back to a Lenape tribe that occupied the site prior to European settlement. Inwood Hill Park is where, legend has it, Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from the Lenape on behalf of the Dutch West India Company.

ORIGIN STORY…It was purportedly under this tulip tree that the Lenape tribe sold Manhattan to Peter Minuit in 1626. The tree was felled by a storm in 1933. A large stone (inset) marks the spot today.

Inwood served as a location for a fort during the Revolutionary War, and was dotted with working farms including one owned by the Jan Dyckman family, established in 1661. In the 19th century a number of wealthy New Yorkers built country retreats around Inwood, which became a park in 1926. Squatters continued to live in abandoned estates around the edge of the park until Robert Moses came along in the 1930s and cleared them out. E.B. White, in “The Talk of the Town,” takes it from there.

WE CALL IT HOME…In 1931, Marie Naomie Boulerease Constantine Kennedy, an American Indian known as Princess Naomie (left) was a caretaker of the old Dyckman farm (below), which had fallen into disrepair by the late 1800s and was restored in 1916. At right, LePrince Voorhees and her husband, Harry Voorhees, at the door of their ramshackle Inwood Hill Pottery. (myinwood.net/MCNY)

The Dyckman farmhouse fell into disrepair by the late 1800s, seen here in 1892…

(myinwood.net)

…but it was restored in 1916, and still stands today at Broadway and 204th Street…

(myinwood.net)

White wondered how Inwood would appear in ten years, now that parks workers were paving over the old Indian trails and landmarks like the Libby Castle were being torn down to make way for John D. Rockefeller’s Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park.

Built around 1855, Libby Castle was home to several New York bigwigs including William “Boss” Tweed of Tammany Hall fame. It was bulldozed in 1930-31 to make way for John D. Rockefeller’s Cloisters.

(myinwood.net)

Inwood contained the last remaining farms in Manhattan — below are cows grazing in 1900 at site today now occupied by Isham Park, located on the southeast edge of Inwood Park. The next photo, from 1895, identifies “the last field of grain on Manhattan Island.” In the background is the Seaman Mansion at Broadway and 216th Street…

(myinwood.net/MCNY)

Below is a closer view of Seaman Mansion, a white marble, 30-room pile built around 1852. When this photo was taken in 1895, it had just become the new home of a riding club. Entry to the mansion was through a gatehouse, pictured below at right. The mansion was demolished in 1938 as the area around it filled up with cheap commercial buildings. Only the gatehouse remains, crumbling behind an auto body shop as seen in this 2015 image (bottom left):

(daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/Google Maps)

And here’s the latest view from Google maps. Note how the business is now renamed (ironically, yes) after the crumbling arch behind it…

But let’s be fair; there is still much beauty to be had at Inwood. Check out this lovely fall panorama…

(Wikipedia/Barry Solow, November 2010)

 *  *  *

Rub-a-Dub-Dub

One of the great British modernists of the 20th century — perhaps best known for his 1915 novel, The Good Soldier — Ford Madox Ford (1873 – 1939) led a complicated personal life filled with indecision and anxiety. It makes sense that a man, in search of some order in his life, imposed a strict routine on bath time (and also found time for a bit of humor). Here is an excerpt from Ford’s submission to the May 2, 1931 New Yorker:

LITERARY LIONS…Ford Madox Ford (left) poses with other literary greats of the 20th century in a photo taken in Paris, November 1923. Next to Ford are James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn. (justewords.com)

 *  *  *

Tete-a-tete

Humorist and poet Arthur Guiterman was a regular contributor of comic verse to the New Yorker from its first days in 1925 until his death in 1943. In the April 18, 1931 issue, he dashed off this poem to Ralph Pulitzer, imploring him to give his family’s namesake Plaza fountain, and its “goddess of abundance,” a much-needed scrubbing…

KEEP IT CLEAN, RALPH…Arthur Guiterman, shown here seated with his Scottish terrier in August 1931, asked Ralph Pulitzer to do a bit of scrubbing on the family’s namesake Grand Plaza fountain. (UMassAmherst)

No doubt to Guiterman’s delight, he received a reply in the May 3 issue, also in verse, from Ralph Pulitzer himself…

Well, Pulitizer was good for his word, and the fountain was cleaned and restored in 1933. There have been other restorations in 1971, 1985-90. Here is how it looks today:

(Central Park Conservancy)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

The Empire State Building officially opened its doors for business, and to mark the occasion the building’s promoters ran this full page ad that said it all: we are the biggest. Period.

In the back pages another ad touted the amazing views one could afford from the highest spot in the city…note the couple in formal wear having a leisurely smoke as they gaze over the metropolis, their view unobstructed by fencing later added in 1947 to prevent suicidal leaps…

…speaking of large things, folks in the 19th and 20th centuries marveled at the gigantic scale of the man-made world — the Empire State Building, the Hindenburg, Hoover Dam, and ships with names like Titanic and Leviathan, the latter seen below in this ad from the United States Line…

…one of the largest and most popular ocean liners of the 1920s, the U.S.S. Leviathan was actually built in 1914 for Germany’s Hamburg-American Line and christened the Vaterland. During World War I the American government seized the ship while it was docked in Hoboken, New Jersey and used it to transport troops. After the war, it was refurbished and re-christened Leviathan. It was scrapped in 1938…

The U.S.S. Leviathan at dry dock in Boston, 1930. (digitalcommonwealth.org)

…if you took the boat to Paris, you probably had enough money to make an overseas call back home…it would set you back almost $34 for three minutes of static-filled chat, about $550 in today’s dollars…

…and despite the Depression, the thrills of the modern world still abounded, such as GE’s “all-steel” electric refrigerator so artfully depicted in this ad…

…and check out these Chryslers, looking absolutely luxurious…

…as do these Dodge boats, their polished wooden hulls gliding effortlessly through placid waters…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin again with Ralph Barton’s “Hero of the Week”…

…and Barton’s graphic take on the week’s headlines…

Carl Rose examined envy reaching new heights…

…or in the case of Leonard Dove, romance…

…back to earth, more romance from E. McNerney

…and below ground, C.W. Anderson showed how romantic notions can go sour, in this case a man who felt duped by those rags-to-riches tales…

…and we end with Alan Dunn, and a little girl getting an education through the pages of a scandal rag…

Next Time: Through the Looking Glass…

Last Stand for Beau James

“Everyone in this life draws bad cards with the good. The great trouble with most of us is that we do not know when to discard quickly,” observed New York Mayor Jimmy Walker.

April 4, 1931 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Signs that the first bad card was being turned were apparent in the April 4, 1931 edition of the New Yorker. In his weekly collection of quips — “Of All Things” — Howard Brubaker suggested that Walker — known for his frequent trips and general lack of attention to governance — had a different sort of homecoming awaiting his return from California…

…Walker was no doubt hobnobbing with the Hollywood crowd back in the Golden State…the mayor loved donning fine attire (thus the nickname “Beau James”) and enjoyed throwing lavish events for famous people…

MIGNIGHT MAYOR was one of the many nicknames New Yorkers bestowed on Mayor Jimmy Walker, known for his love of nightlife, fine clothes, and beautiful people (another nickname was “Beau James”). Although he was married at the time, he conducted a very open affair with actress Betty Compton (left), who later became his wife. At right, in his element, Walker (center) accompanies actress Colleen Moore to the October 1928 premiere of her film, Lilac Time. (IMDB/konreioldnewyork.blogspot.com)

…which made him an easy target for parody, such as this 1932 Vanity Fair cover, where the mayor even welcomes himself to the city…

(Conde Nast)

Ralph Barton revived his “Hero of the Week” feature to welcome the mayor back to the city…Barton alluded to the fact that Walker preferred conducting his office outside of the official confines:

Walker (1881-1946) made a far more interesting personality than an effective mayor. When he took office in 1926 he proved to be a terrible administrator, partying at speakeasies late into night, sleeping till noon, and leaving city matters (except the lavish ceremonies) to Tammany Hall cronies. This didn’t seem to bother voters when the economy boomed in the 1920s, and indeed they re-elected him by an overwhelming margin in 1929.

The 1929 market crash quickly changed things. The Roaring Twenties abruptly ended, and with people losing their jobs (and fortunes), the mayor’s antics didn’t seem so amusing anymore. Reform was in the air, and leading the charge was Gov. Franklin Roosevelt, who was no fan of Walker’s.

IF LOOKS COULD KILL…Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt meets with Mayor Jimmy Walker in conference at Roosevelt’s home on E. 65th St. in December 1928; at left, campaign banner for Walker on Tammany Hall, 4th Avenue and 17th Street, Oct. 28, 1929. Walker was a product of the Tammany Hall political machine, and much of the mayor’s backroom dealings were conducted there, as well as at various speakeasies and nightclubs. (NYC Municipal Archives/NY Daily News)

Investigations into corruption in Walker’s administration landed Walker before an investigative committee of led by Judge Samuel Seabury in 1931…

IN THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY…Mayor Jimmy Walker takes the stand in the New York County Courthouse on May 25, 1932, to answer questions from Judge Samuel Seabury (left). Thousands of New Yorkers showed up to cheer the mayor when he entered the courthouse, but those cheers soon became jeers as details of the administration’s corruption were made public. (NY Daily News).

…Mayor Walker resigned the following year and fled to Europe, where he married his mistress, Betty Compton (1904-1944) in Cannes, France, on April 19, 1933. We will revisit this tale in later issues…

SEE YA…

 *  *  *

On the Lighter Side

“The Talk of the Town” included this note about the play Peter Pan, which was being staged at the Fourteenth Street Theatre. Much was made of the wizardry that enabled actors to float above the audience.

Eva Le Gallienne (1899-1991), who portrayed the title character, made the theatre home of her stage company in 1926, and renamed it the Civic Repertory Theatre. Le Gallienne played the role of Peter Pan 129 times, and although the flying effects were quite hazardous, she said she “took to flying like the proverbial duck to water.”

NO STAGE FRIGHT HERE…The Fourteenth Street Theatre, originally constructed in 1866, was dubbed the Civic Repertory Theatre when Eva Le Gallienne (center) made it the home of her stage company. Le Gallienne played the role of Peter Pan 129 times on the theatre’s stage, and loved performing the dangerous flying stunts. Images of Le Gallienne from Bruce K. Hanson’s book, Peter Pan on Stage and Screen, 1904-2010. (Wikipedia/Bruce K. Hanson).
DARLINGS…The Darling family as portrayed in the Civic Repertory Theatre’s production of Peter Pan. At bottom, right, “The Wendy House” as it appeared on stage. And a bit of trivia: the young lad who portrayed John Darling (see arrow) was none other than Burgess Meredith, who would go on to a long and successful career on the stage, television (he played the Penguin in the 1960s Batman TV series), and in film, seen top right as Sylvester Stallone’s trainer Mickey in 1976’s Rocky. (Bruce K. Hanson/IMDB)

Eva Le Gallienne lived 92 years, and Burgess Meredith made it to 89. Such was not the fate of the Civic Repertory Theatre, which closed in 1934 due to the Depression. The 1866 building was demolished in 1938. Not a trace remains.

 *  *  *

Fightin’ Words

I have to say it’s really too bad Dorothy Parker didn’t stay on as theatre critic for the New Yorker (she was subbing for her friend, Robert Benchley) because her weekly forays into the middlebrow world of Broadway produced some of her most entertaining writing. For the April 4 issue Parker offered some thoughts about The Silent Witness, which ran from March to June at the Morosco Theatre.

Instead of turning cartwheels, Parker took aim at actress Kay Strozzi, “who had the temerity to wear as truly horrible a gown as ever I have seen on the American stage. … Had she not luckily been strangled by a member of the cast while disporting this garment, I should have fought my way to the stage and done her in, myself.”

She ended the review with another plea to Benchley, who was traveling abroad:

WHAT ABOUT THIS OUTFIT, DOROTHY?…I don’t have a photo of the “horrible” gown worn by Kay Strozzi (left) in The Silent Witness, so you’ll have to settle for this image of Ms. Strozzi from the 1931 film Captain Applejack. At right, and dressed to kill, Dorothy Parker posed for Edward Steichen in this 1931 portrait. (IMDB/Pinterest)

 *  *  *

Tipsy Tots

Tired of Prohibition, and its farcical enforcement, Wolcott Gibbs had some fun with the official Wickersham Report’s conclusions regarding the success of the 18th Amendment:

Wolcott Gibbs (wsj.com)

On a loftier note, we have this ode to the new Empire State Building from Price Day, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and noted editor of the Baltimore Sun:

The profile, written by Gilbert Seldes, featured artist Gaston Lachaise…I include a brief excerpt for personal reasons, because I first encountered this artist in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery’s sculpture garden in Lincoln, Nebraska (my hometown), many years ago, via his “Floating Figure”…

WEIGHTLESS…”Floating Figure” by Gaston Lachaise was cast in bronze at the end of 1934 after a retrospective held in January 1935 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. This is one of seven casts, at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. (Lincoln Arts Council)

 *  *  *

From Our Advertisers

Pierce Arrow would struggle to promote its luxury cars in the Great Depression (and they would go under by the mid-1930s) but their advertising still harked back to the carmaker’s early days of refined travel…

…the folks at Ethyl would make that car run smoother, thanks to the lead they added to gasoline (and to the air folks were breathing)…

…tired of driving? Then hop a freighter and fire up a Chesterfield…

…or go for a more cushy ride on the French Line…

…we turn to our cartoons, and Ralph Barton’s revival of his old “Graphic Section”…

Helen Hokinson showed us the nuances of the DMV…

Leonard Dove showed us a pet on the wild side…

Otto Soglow zigzagged across the pages with his Little King…

…and Gardner Rea revealed the wonders of world travel…

Next Time: Fear of Flying…

Chaplin of the Jungle

In the 1920s and 30s the concept of the documentary film was still in its infancy, and beginning with the silent Nanook of the North (1922), the idea that a documentary and a drama were separate things was unknown to filmmakers.

Feb. 28, 1930 cover by Theodore Haupt.

What was known, however, was the box office appeal of films that explored unknown and exotic lands, like Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1927 blockbuster Chang, which featured a mix of staged events as well as the actual slaughter of wild animals. Audiences (and most critics) seemed little troubled that these films were a mix of fact and fiction. It was a movie, after all, and movies followed a story arc, and they had drama, and sometimes comedy. And so when Schoedsack (1893-1979) introduced audiences to an orangutan named Rango, publicists described the simian star as the “Charlie Chaplin of the Jungle.” The New Yorker’s John Mosher found the performances of the various apes “astonishingly adept”…

MONKEY BUSINESS…Clockwise, from top left, the Iowa-born Ernest B. Schoedsack cut his filmmaking teeth as a producer/director of quasi-documentaries, beginning with 1925’s Grass, which followed a caravan from Angora to Persia; a young Sumatran boy, Bin, bonds with the orangutan Rango; promotional theater card for the film. (filmaffinity.com)
NOT SO CUDDLY…Two years after Rango, Ernest B. Schoedsack would co-produce and co-direct 1933’s King Kong, with Merian C. Cooper. (Britannica)

If interpretations of tropical life weren’t accurate in 1931, it wasn’t completely due to filmmakers taking dramatic license. Attitudes toward “exotic” lands and people commonly ranged from naively paternalistic to downright racist. In a letter to the New Yorker, Patrick T.L. Putnam (1904-1953) is decidedly of the former, portraying Congo pygmies as clever, amusing children who hoodwink unsuspecting “explorers”…

To Putnam’s credit, he showed a genuine interest (and respect) in the lives of tribal peoples, and particularly the Mbuti of the Congo’s Ituri Forest. He remained in the Congo for the rest of his life. This thumbnail is the only photo I could find of Putnam:

(geni.com)

 *  *  *

Big Bill Turns Pro

In first decades of the 20th century it was still widely believed that athletic competition should be for its own sake rather than as a means for making money, so many top stars competed as amateurs. Professional golf wasn’t established until 1916, and professional leagues in basketball and football first formed in the 1920s. Amateur status was especially prized in tennis — before the “Open Era” began in 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam tournaments.

Sports promoter C. C. Pyle established the first professional tennis tour in 1926 with American and French stars playing exhibition matches in front of paying audiences. According to the New Yorker’s John Tunis, many in the crowd were finely dressed, with men in top hats and women turned out in the latest high fashion.

America’s top draw was “Big Bill” Tilden, the world’s number one player from 1920 to 1925 and the first American to win Wimbledon. It caused quite a stir when Tilden went pro on Dec. 31, 1930. He barnstormed across the country,  playing one-night stands with a small group of professionals including the top Czech player Karel Koželuh. “The Talk of the Town” had this to say about the fledging game of professional tennis:

BARNSTORMERS…Bill Tilden (left) and Karel Koželuh toured America and Europe with a handful of other players in a series of exhibition matches in the fledgling professional tennis circuit. (Britannica/cyranos.ch)

In his sports column, John Tunis offered this description of the competitors:

NOW AND THEN…At left, you can still spot a few neckties at Wimbledon as the audience watches Roger Federer and Andy Roddick enter Centre Court in 2009; at right, Wimbledon crowd in 1925. (BBC/Vintage Every Day)

 *  *  *

Triple Tripe

Dorothy Parker continued to sub in the theater column for her friend Robert Benchley, who was traveling abroad. She found little to like on the Great White Way, including three forgettable plays she reviewed in the Feb. 28 issue:

Apparently audiences agreed with Parker’s assessment. The Gang’s All Here closed after just 23 performances, The Great Barrington, after just 16. And Heat Wave was not so hot, closing after a mere 15 performances.

NOT SO GREAT…Program for 1931’s The Great Barrington. It lasted 16 performances. (IBDB)

Parker once again closed the column with a plea to her dear friend:

 *  *  *

To Swash No More

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White lamented the end of Douglas Fairbanks as the swashbuckler of the silents, and rejected the talkie version of the actor in Reaching for the Moon, a film in which Fairbanks portrayed Larry Day, a Wall Street millionaire who later loses his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash.

KEEP YOUR SHIRT ON, DOUG…From left, Douglas Fairbanks in the silent era’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924); Fairbanks on an ocean cruise with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. The 47-year-old Fairbanks was still fit enough to pose shirtless, but E.B. White wasn’t having any of it. Despite his fit appearance, Fairbanks would die of a heart attack at the end of the decade. (IMDB)

The film today is perhaps best known for its sumptuous Art Deco sets…

…and for one of Bing Crosby’s earliest film appearances. Reaching for the Moon was originally intended to be a musical featuring numbers by Irving Berlin, however Berlin found director Edmund Goulding difficult to work with, so only one of the original five songs recorded for the film was used, “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down,” sung by Crosby. It was filmed late at night after he had completed his gig at the Cocoanut Grove.

SINGING WITH BA-BA-BEBE…A young Bing Crosby sings “When the Folks High Up Do the Mean Low Down” with Bebe Daniels in Reaching for the Moon. (IMDB)

 *  *  *

Modern Living

E.B. White also commented on the modern world’s reliance on electric appliances, a habit a mere decade in the making since the gadgets he lists below did not exist before the 1920s:

ELECTRIC SURGE…Prior to the 1920s none of these electric appliances existed. By 1931 many homes were dependent upon them — although many country houses would have to wait for the Rural Electrification Administration (1935) and other New Deal programs get electrical service. (Pinterest)

*  *  *

From Our Advertisers

I’ve written before about Lux Toilet Soap’s celebrity-studded ad campaigns, but this two-page ad in the Feb. 28 issue caught my eye because it featured one of my favorite actresses, Jessie Royce Landis

…who appeared in two of my favorite films, both by Alfred Hitchcock: To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).

MATERNAL ROLES…Jessie Royce Landis usually played older than she was in real life. Clockwise, from top left, detail of Lux ad; Landis circa 1930; opposite Cary Grant in 1955’s To Catch a Thief; and again with Grant in 1959’s North by Northwest. In the latter film she played Grant’s mother, but in reality she was only seven years older than Grant. (IMDB)

…much of the Douglas Fairbanks/Bebe Daniels film Reaching for the Moon was set on a luxury ocean liner…if the stock market didn’t get you down, you could also afford to travel in style with the Empress of Britain

…or on one of the fine ships of the French Line fleet…

…the Imperial was one of the luxury cars that could get you to the docks…

…among the stranger ads to appear in the New Yorker was this one by the maker of clay plumbing fixtures…

…on to our cartoonists, Ralph Barton returned with this illustration for the theater section…

Rea Irvin brought us another of his two-page series cartoons…

Gardner Rea commented on the state of the art world…

Peter Arno peered in on an unfortunate infant…

Helen Hokinson gave us this exchange along a city street…

Garrett Price illustrated a tall order for a blues musician…

Kindl found clashing styles in the shoe department…

…and James Thurber returned with a prelude to his battle of the sexes…

Next Time: The End of the World…

The High Place

For this installment we look at two issues, Nov. 15 and 22, both featuring covers by Theodore Haupt that celebrated two autumn rituals: football and Thanksgiving.

Let’s begin with the Nov. 22 issue, which climbed to the highest place in Manhattan — no, not the Chrysler Building, but the nearby Empire State Building — with E.B. White admiring the commanding view:

Before the Empire State Building could go up, the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel had to come down. As White observed, the old hotel was built so soundly that it was too costly to deconstruct and salvage. Most of it ended up on the bottom of the ocean.

DOWN IN DAVY JONES’ LOCKER lie the remains of the old Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which stood for just 36 years before it was razed to make room for the Empire State Building. At right, one of the hotel’s lobbies, and the Grand Ballroom. (nyc-architecture.com/Pinterest)
UPSTART…Left, in this image from November 1930, scaffolding embraces the Empire State Building’s “mooring mast,” which promoters claimed would allow dirigibles to load and unload passengers atop the tallest building in the world. Top right, although not yet complete, the actual height of the Empire State Building exceeded the Chrysler Building by October 1930. It would officially claim the crown as the world’s tallest on May 1, 1931. Bottom right, a steelworker’s view of the Chrysler Building from atop the Empire State Building, taken by photographer Lewis Hine. (Fine Art America/MCNY/Wikipedia)
A LOT OF HOT AIR…Top images: The fabled “mooring mast,” described by E.B. White in his New Yorker brief, as imagined in composite images (old-time Photoshop). In reality, the morning mast never worked; bottom right, a cutaway view of the mast featured in Popular Mechanics; bottom left, New York Times photo from March 22, 1931, announcing the completion of the Empire State Building, just 17 months after the Waldorf-Astoria began coming down. (Reddit, Pinterest, NYT)
SURVEYING THEIR KINGDOM…Most visitors to the Empire State Building can only go as high as the 86th floor observation deck. However, if you are a VIP like Serena Williams or Taylor Swift, you can get your picture snapped on the 103rd. (Empire State Building/Evan Bindelglass, CBSNewYork)

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Sore Winner

Sinclair Lewis famously declined the Pulitizer Prize for his 1925 novel Arrowsmith, upset that his 1920 novel Main Street had not previously won the prize. But when the Swedish Academy came calling with a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930, he happily accepted. According to “The Talk of the Town,” this award also seemed a bit tardy, since Lewis’s small town booster archetype, George F. Babbitt, did not fit the dour days of the Great Depression. But it turned out that the 1922 novel Babbitt was ultimately what swayed the Nobel jury:

BOOST FROM A BOOSTER…George F. Babbitt helped make Sinclair Lewis famous, and landed him a Nobel. (NYT, NOVEMBER 6, 1930)

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Not So Sweet

Those of a certain age might remember Helen Hayes as a sweet old lady who appeared on a number of TV shows in the 1970s and 80s, or as the mother in real life of James MacArthur, Disney teen star and later the portrayer of Danny “Book ’em Danno” Williams on the original Hawaii 5-0 TV series. Hayes was married to playwright Charles MacArthur, and “The Talk of the Town” takes it from there…

CREATIVE TYPES…The engaged couple Charles MacArthur and Helen Hayes posed for photographer Edward Steichen for this Jan. 1, 1929 image featured in Vanity Fair magazine. (Condé Nast)

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Ain’t It Grand

Grand Hotel opened at the National Theatre on Nov. 13, 1930 to strong reviews, including the one below by Robert Benchley that he filed for the New Yorker. The play, adapted from the 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel by Austrian writer Vicki Baum, would prove to be a smash on Broadway and again on the silver screen in a star-studded 1932 film featuring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.

THE STARS ALIGN…Left, promotional photograph of the original Broadway production of Grand Hotel. At right, Eugenie Leontovich portrayed fading Russian ballerina Grusinskaya in the play. The role would go to Greta Garbo in the 1932 film adaptation. (Theatre Magazine, February 1931/Wikipedia)

…and while we are on the subject of Broadway, the theater review section also featured this Al Frueh illustration promoting a noted production of Twelfth Night at the Maxine Elliott…

Program for the production featuring Jane Cowl. (Playbill)

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There were also big doings at the Met, where Spanish lyric soprano Lucrezia Bori (1887-1960) wowed audiences with her portrayal of Violetta in La Traviata.

SHE HAD SOME PIPES…right, lyric soprano Lucrezia Bori on the cover of the June 30, 1930 edition of Time magazine. At right, promotional photo of Bori circa 1930. (Time/Wikipedia)

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Bounty of Blessings

Humorist W. E. Farbstein gave readers plenty to be thankful for in this tribute to the Thanksgiving holiday…

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From Our Advertisers

Occasionally advertisements acknowledged the reality of the Great Depression, including this one from the Saturday Evening Post that offered encouraging words to prospective readers…

…County Fair, a Greenwich Village country-themed nightclub, offered the diversion of Moffatt and Bowman to take audiences’ minds off of hard times…

…and for all the supposed sophistication of New Yorker readers, there were still plenty of back page ads offering nostrums laced with superstition…

…some of the more colorful, spritely ads from the era were offered up by the producers of Texaco Motor Oil…

…our cartoons are by Gardner Rea

Barbara Shermund

William Crawford Galbraith

…and Perry Barlow

…and for another reminder of reality in the city, this sketch that ran along the bottom of “The Talk of the Town,” by Reginald Marsh

…and now we step back to the Nov. 15 issue, where E.B. White offered a less somber take on the Great Depression…

…White also noted a change on the faces of storefront mannequins…

YIN AND YANG…The worldly pose of a Roaring Twenties mannequin, and a more wholesome look for the leaner times in the 1930s. (Pinterest)

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Playing Telephone

Long, long before cell phones, telephones were heavy stationary devices that required a certain amount of planning before installation, as E.B. White explains:

On to our Nov. 15 ads, we have this announcement for The Third New Yorker Album…with illustration by Otto Soglow

…here is what the album looked like…

…and a couple of inside pages…

(Etsy)

…one of the contributors to the album was Rea Irvin, founding illustrator for the New Yorker and Murad cigarettes…also another Flit insecticide ad by Dr. Seuss

…Christmas ads began appearing in the magazine, including this one for Hanson scales…pity the poor chap (and his wife) who actually thought this might be a suitable present for Christmas, or any occasion for that matter…

…and with Prohibition still in force, advertisers found other uses to promote their products…

…on to our cartoons, Leonard Dove illustrated a couple who didn’t get away with the ruse…

… Alan Dunn depicted what was considered typical office behavior in the 1930s…

...Peter Arno visited the Harvard Club…

Alice Harvey also explored the college scene…

…some parlor games with Barbara Shermund

……Bruce Bairnsfather, and some existentialist chat at tea time…

…and we close with Izzy Klein, and the world of corporate competition…

…and a Happy Thanksgiving, from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade 89 years ago, Nov. 27, 1930…

(CBS)

Next Time: The Future Was a Silly Place…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Moderne Feeling

A defining moment for Art Deco design in America occurred at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art during a 1929 exhibition that showcased everything from household furnishings to garden design.

March 9, 1929 cover by Theodore Haupt. Between 1927 and 1933, Haupt would illustrate 45 covers for the New Yorker.

Before we delve into the Met’s exhibition, The Architect and the Industrial Arts, a quick note about the New Yorker’s Theodore Haupt-illustrated cover, which referenced the annual Six-Day Cycling Race that was taking place at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome. The event, which began at the old Madison Square Garden in 1891 and lasted until 1950, featured a beer garden (after Prohibition) in the center of the oval and drew such celebrities as Bing Crosby, Barbara Stanwyck and Peggy Joyce. It was said that Crosby even paid the hospital bills of riders who fell during the race.

THIS MIGHT TAKE AWHILE…The Six-Day Cycling Race at the Madison Square Garden Velodrome, 1932. (Victoria & Albert Museum)

The March 9 issue was lively with another contribution from Groucho Marx (“Press Agents I Have Known”) and an Alexander Woollcott-penned profile of playwright and screenwriter Charles Gordon MacArthur (husband of stage actress Helen Hayes and father of James “Book ’em Danno” MacArthur).

But as the blog title suggests, it was also filled with articles and ads that told of a city embracing all things new and modern, including a piece by architecture critic George S. Chappell on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s eleventh Exhibition of Contemporary American Design, titled The Architect and the Industrial Arts. It was curated by the Met’s Richard F. Bach, who organized 15 annual exhibitions of contemporary industrial art at the museum between 1917 and 1940.

The 1929 exhibition of Art Deco works was the biggest yet, inspired by the Art Moderne movement in Europe and particularly the 1925 Paris Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels). The Met exhibition, wrote Chappell, “should not be missed”…

PORTAL TO THE FUTURE…Entrance to The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, designed by Joseph Urban. The above exhibition poster (seen mounted on the doorway in the photo) was by W.A. Dwiggins. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Ornaments created by W.A. Diggins for the exhibition catalogue included, from left, “Conservatory,” for a section on  Joseph Urban; ornament on a page devoted to curator Richard F. Bach; “Backyard Garden” for a section on Ely Jacques Kahn; and an ornament that graced the acknowledgements page. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, via paulshawletterdesign.com)
NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S GARDEN…Mosaic semi-circular bench designed by Austin Purves, Jr. was featured in architect Ely Jacques Kahn’s “Backyard Garden” display by at the The Architect & the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Pencil Points Magazine, January 1929)

Chappell found the exhibit to be “stimulating,” although he hoped designers in the future would “curb cleverness” and focus more on fundamentals:

DINING IN STYLE…A dining room designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen for The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
VISIONARIES…The Cooperating Committee for 1929 The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition were, standing, left to right, architects Raymond Hood, Eugene Schoen and Ely Jacques Kahn. Seated, left to right, architects Ralph T. Walker, John Wellborn Root, Jr. and Eliel Saarinen; ceramist, painter and graphic artist Leon V. Solon; and architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
COZY…Ralph Walker’s “Man’s Study for a Country House” at the The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (architectsandartisans.com)
ALL BUSINESS…Raymond Hood’s “Business Executive’s Office” featured at The Architect and the Industrial Arts exhibition. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Writing in the February 1929 Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Richard S. Bach posed bold questions for this new age: “What is the tempo of our day? What are the dominant elements of our culture, our activities, our thinking? Is this a speed age or are we sedate? Have we time to be dignified and stately about frills or are we air-minded? Do we wait for months, as once all did, for the silkworm to complete his labors before beginning to make thread from his cocoon…or (do we) make a few bales of vegetable silk out of chemically treated wood fiber between breakfast and lunch as a regular chore of a business week-day? And is this the mechanistic millennium which shrivels the soul and makes mockery of imagination, or are these fabulous industries, these automatic instruments of production, the means of bringing within range of vision the real potentialities of our crowded lives and of interpreting our aspirations and achievements?

Pumping Iron Into the Sky

The architecture firm Starrett & van Vleck saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” when they designed a new Art Deco skyscraper to house the Downtown Athletic Club. Writing in Lost City NewsMary Hohlt cites the architect Rem Koolhaas, who sees the Downtown Athletic Club as “the ideal of a hyper-reality in the burgeoning urban form of hyper-density and congestion.” The Club is “the everything-at-your-fingertips self-improvement incubator for men…It is a place for men to indulge on self-improvement; to better themselves in a place only the constructed, hyper-reality of Manhattan can provide.”

SELF-IMPROVEMENT INCUBATOR…the Downtown Athletic Club by Starrett & van Vleck, 1930. (4.bp.blogspot.com) click to enlarge

Hohlt writes that Koolhaas sees the Downtown Athletic Club as a sterile place: “Towering in the sky, the Club removes men from the rest of the world and allows them a kind of aesthetic improvement that cannot be passed on.” E.B. White took a less jaded view in this “Talk of the Town” segment:

STILL A WINNER…Famous for serving as the site of the annual awarding of the Heisman Trophy, the Downtown Athletic Club closed in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks. The club was within a “frozen zone” closed to the public during the long clean-up that followed, and could not withstand the financial impact of such a long closure. It reopened in 2005 as a residential tower. (newyorkitecture.com)

Another New Yorker who saw the “real potentialities of our crowded lives” was insurance salesman Milton A. Kent, who in 1928-29 erected a brick and terra-cotta Art Deco tower that could park 1,000 cars using an automatic elevator system.

MONUMENT TO THE CAR…The May 1928 issue of Modern Mechanix featured this cutaway illustration of Milton Kent’s high-rise, automated parking garage. (boweryboyshistory.com) click image to enlarge

Once again E.B. White was on hand to render this observation for “Talk”…

HUMAN SCALE…Kent’s fantastic garage still stands at West 61st Street, but today it serves as—you guessed it—an apartment building. (boweryboyshistory.com)

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Death of a Can-Can Dancer

The sad death of Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, was announced in Janet Flanner’s “Letter from Paris” column. Weber was a can-can dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris and a model for some of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous cabaret paintings. Flanner wrote of La Goulue’s rise to fame…

JUST FOR KICKS… Louise Weber, aka La Goulue, circa 1890, and an 1891 poster by Toulouse-Lautrec advertising the performers La Goulue and “No-Bones” Valentin at the new Paris dance hall Moulin Rouge. (Wikipedia)

…and her sad downfall into a life of poverty among the rag-pickers:

SAD DECLINE…La Goulue, her face freshly powdered, sat on the steps of her small trailer for an unknown postcard photographer in the 1920s. This image is a detail of the original photograph, held at the Wheaton College Permanent Collection.

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From Our Advertisers

An advertisement on page 45 for Mohawk carpets featured two Cockney charwomen admiring the new carpets at the General Motors headquarters:

A corresponding note: Shreve & Lamb’s 1927 General Motors Building was the hub of Columbus Circle’s Automobile Row. A hideous 2012 remodel, which clad the entire structure in reflective glass, has rendered the former landmark unrecognizable:

Museum of the City of New York/nyc-architecture.com

Getting back to all things “moderne,” these facing ads on pages 8-9 offered some new looks for spring…

…and in the cartoons, a tongue-in-cheek vision of a modern high-rise by Al Frueh, prompted by the news that Florenz Ziegfeld planned to build a 44-story building in his native Chicago. Thanks to the market crash later in the year, it was never realized.

In drawings sprinkled across pages 24-25, Helen Hokinson examined various approaches to tax season, including these two examples…

…and finally, Peter Arno caught a theatre performer with his pants down…

Next Time: Babbitt Babble…