Dirge for a Dirigible

There was a time when dirigibles were considered the future of transatlantic transportation. In the 1930s they could carry more passengers than any other type of aircraft while offering amenities usually associated with ocean liners such as private cabins, dining rooms and large observation decks. They were also faster than those water-borne vessels.

March 26, 1932 cover by Bela Dankovsky.

Dirigibles, however, were challenging to operate — with crew members outnumbering passengers — and sometimes they fell from the sky. Such was the fate of the USS Shenandoah during a 1925 publicity flight over Ohio. On board was the Navy’s Lt. Cmdr. Charles Emery Rosendahl (1892 – 1977), who had to act quickly when the airship encountered a severe thunderstorm. Hitting a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its gas bags, the airship was torn apart. For the March 26 “Profile,” writer Henry Pringle recounted Rosendahl’s experience:

HE LIVED TO TELL ABOUT IT…Clockwise, from top left, Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rosendahl, USN, circa 1930; the USS Shenandoah in pieces near Caldwell, Ohio; the airship in better days; close-up view of the wreckage. (Wikipedia/airships.net)
IT WAS A GAS…Like other other early dirigibles, the USS Shenandoah was designed for war (fleet reconnaissance) rather than passenger service. It was the first rigid airship to use a safer gas, helium, rather than hydrogen to gain lift. However, helium was scarce at the time, and the Shenandoah used almost all of the world’s reserves to fill its gas cells, which held 2,100,000 cubic feet. (fly.historicwings.com)









ON THE CATWALK…Lt. Cmdr. Charles Rosendahl hurried through this area while the USS Shenandoah was being torn apart in mid-air. Rosendahl was ordered out of the control car by the airship’s pilot, Cmdr. Zachery Landsdowne, to check on the Shenandoah’s oil and gas tanks. It was an order that ultimately saved Rosendahl’s life: Eight crew members in the control car, including Landsdowne, perished. In all, 14 crew members lost their lives. (airships.net)

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Untouchable Unmentionables

In his “Notes and Comment,” E.B. White mused about one Boston store’s promotion of a line of women’s underwear as “Gandhi panties,” apparently inspired by the loincloth worn by Indian liberator Mahatma Gandhi:

THE SIMPLE LIFE…Mahatma Gandhi held numerous hunger strikes during his years of protest against India’s caste system and British Imperial rule. He is pictured here in jail in September 1932 during the second of his fasts, protesting the British government’s decision to separate India’s electoral system by caste. (history.com)

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Hearst Wurst

Film critic John Mosher was not happy with the happy ending (or much else) in the William Randolph Hearst-backed Polly of the Circus, which starred Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, along with emerging star Clark Gable, who portrayed a small-town minister who risked his career for love with a trapeze artist.

JUST READ THE NAUGHTY BITS…Top image: With the backing of William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies was able to bill her latest MGM film as a “Marion Davies Production.” Davies had star billing over Clark Gable in Polly of the Circus, but as his star rose in the 1930s, Davies saw her fortunes (and Hearst’s) drain away during the Depression years. Bottom image: the Reverend John Hartley (Gable) and trapeze artist Polly Fisher (Davies) “look for something hot” in the Book of Ruth. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Electric refrigerators for home use had been around for less than decade in 1932, but as more companies got into the business, the drive to distinguish one’s product from the competitor’s became keen…the distinctive “Monitor Top” GE refrigerators were touted by Rex Cole in both their ads and in the design of their showrooms…

…Allen-Ingraham, on the other hand, demonstrated how their “dual-automatic” Westinghouse could bring harmony to a party of bootleg-swilling old gents…

…the makers of Electrolux invoked the inevitable march of time and progress in promoting their “automatic” refrigerator…

…on to sundry things, the upscale British department store Fortnum & Mason employed this simple ad to demonstrate the superiority of old money over the preening lower orders…

…and in the back pages we find these cheap ads for corsets, a prep school and a shorthand lessons…

…the makers of Listerine reminded readers of the connection between their old line of antiseptic products and their new line of cigarettes…

…the Santa Fe Railroad invited travelers to the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles…

…while the Missouri Pacific line promoted the wonders of Kansas City, the “Heart of America”…

…makers of the autogiro — part airplane, part helicopter — continued to promote the advantages of this supposedly easy to fly contraption…in the 1930s the autogiro was seen as the future of personal air travel, some predicting that the craft would join the automobile in many a garage…

…on to our cartoons, Alice Harvey found one man who was ready for the autogiro lifestyle…

…and Peter Arno gave us an old walrus ready to take advantage of an unsuspecting host…

……and Helen Hokinson’s “girls” also found themselves involved in a scandalous situation…

…on to the April 2, 1932 issue…

April 2, 1932 cover by Julian de Miskey.

…where this time critic John Mosher took a look at a new film (and a new film genre) — Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Weissmuller (1904-1984) was well known in the 1920s as a five-time Olympic Gold Champion swimmer, so the 28-year-old was a familiar face when he stepped into the title role. The Irish-born O’Sullivan (1911-1998) had appeared in seven films in 1930-31 before she was cast as Jane Parker in Tarzan, the Ape Man. Mosher found the film silly, but entertaining nonetheless.

THAT PRE-CODE LOOK…Before decency codes were strictly enforced in Hollywood, many early 1930s films featured scenes that were pretty racy for those times. Both Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller were scantily clad for their roles in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man. (IMDB/fanpop.com/manapop.com/YouTube)

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Cancel Me, Kate

“That’s Why Darkies Were Born” was a popular song in those days of casual racism, written by Ray Henderson and Lew Brown for George White’s Scandals of 1931. It was recorded by a number artists including Paul Robeson (see below) and Kate Smith — it was one of Smith’s biggest records and also the reason she was recently “cancelled” in some sports venues.

In 2019 the New York Yankees announced that Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” would no longer be played at Yankee Stadium, citing not only Smith’s version of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born” but also her past performances of the song “Pickaninny Heaven.” The Philadelphia Flyers followed the Yankees example, covering up and later removing a statue of Smith outside the Wells Fargo Center.

THAT’S WHY YOU WERE CANCELLED…One of Kate Smith’s biggest early hits was her performance of “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” In 2019 the Philadelphia Flyers organization covered and later removed a statue of Smith outside the Wells Fargo Center. (mprnew.org)

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From Our Advertisers

We have more inducements to travel, this time abroad and in style aboard the French Line…

…or if you were looking for something a bit more exotic, Intourist could book you passage to the Soviet Union…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with this great spot illustration by Victor De Pauw, who contributed to the New Yorker from 1928 to 1948…

William Crawford Galbraith offered some insight into the cultural tastes of the upper orders…

…while Alan Dunn illustrated the Depression’s domestic woes…

…and we have what I believe is the first appearance of William Steig’s “Small Fry” children identified as such…many more would follow, later to be collected into a popular book by the same name…

…and another by Steig of a person contemplating his life’s desire…

…and we end with James Thurber, with all of his familiar themes tied up in one drawing…

Next Time: A Return to the Nightlife…


Lighter Than Air

The New Yorker was launched as a sophisticated, funny, urbane weekly, so it’s always interesting to see how the magazine will respond to a national tragedy.

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Sept. 12, 1925 cover by Rea Irvin, depicting plutocrats on a Merry-Go-Round.

For example, the Sept. 12, 1925 “Talk of the Town” featured a brief item titled “Zachary Lansdowne.” It opens with a paragraph describing the lieutenant commander’s demeanor and character:

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Then it becomes apparent that this is a eulogy of sorts, since Lansdowne was the pilot of the American dirigible S.S. Shenandoah:

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Built in 1922, the S.S. Shenandoah was the first of four U.S. Navy airships. On Sept. 2, 1925, it departed on a promotional flight that would include flyovers of 40 cities and visits to state fairs. While passing through thunderstorms over Ohio on the morning of September 3, the Shenandoah was caught in a violent updraft that carried it beyond the pressure limits of its helium gas bags. It was torn apart in the turbulence and crashed in several pieces. Fourteen of Shenandoah‍ ’ s crew, including Commander Lansdowne, were killed. Amazingly, there were 29 survivors who succeeded in riding three sections of the airship to earth.

Wreck of the Shenandoah. The front section rests in a field near Caldwell, Ohio. (Wikipedia)

After a lean summer, advertising in The New Yorker picked up dramatically, with the opening spread for the Sept. 12 issue featuring full-page ads by The Roosevelt Hotel and the French fashion house Paul Poiret:

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This infusion of advertising was largely the result of a big promotional push orchestrated by John Hanrahan, considered one of the most gifted writers of publisher promotions. The magazine’s major (and really only) investor, Raoul Fleischmann, brought Hanrahan on board to address the magazine’s dearth of advertising, a move that was much to the dislike of the acerbic Harold Ross.

The trials of starting a new magazine were not lost on Ross, as was evidenced in this Newsbreak on page 13:

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But Ross knew that the ad push helped the bottom line, and he did his part to draw new talent to the magazine and improve its overall quality.

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Ingersoll in the 1940s (baseball-fever.com)

New talent included Ralph Ingersoll, who joined the magazine as managing editor in the summer of 1925. Ingersoll went to work giving the magazine a “voice,” especially in the rather weak and unfocused “Talk of the Town” section.

After suffering Ross-induced burnout in 1930, Ingersoll would go on to serve as a managing editor of Time-Life Publications, and would later found the short-lived, left-wing daily newspaper, PM.

That summer Ross also brought on Katharine Angell (later Katharine White) as a part-time reader of manuscripts, but almost immediately she became a full-time employee and was soon involved in every aspect of the magazine.

Katherine Angell (Wikipedia)

She is often credited with the magazine’s maturity and its sophisticated taste and style. It was through Angell that Ross would meet and hire both E.B. White (who would later marry Angell) and James Thurber.

In the “Profiles’ Section, Murdock Pemberton took a look at the challenges facing Richard Bach in his attempts to promote the arts to business-minded New Yorkers. Bach was an “Associate in Industrial Arts” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Today, merchandise based on art museum collections is a ubiquitous practice, but in 1925 Bach’s job was viewed as somewhat distasteful:

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Morris Markey (“In The News”) tried to make sense of the continued enforcement of Prohibition, and seemed to conclude that it originated in Puritan resentment in the Midwest, and would continue to be enforced according to regional customs and strictures:

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And true to form, New Yorker film critic Theodore Shane panned a movie that today is considered a classic of the silent era:

UM, AWKWARD…Theodore Shane called Phantom of the Opera “Grand Guignol in imitation of Poe with a generous smear of Laemmle hokum”…in this scene, Erik, The Phantom (Lon Chaney) woos Christine Daaé (Mary Philbin) (Wikipedia)

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With this issue Lois Long retired “When Nights Are Bold” (a column on local nightlife she inherited from Charles Baskerville) and introduced us to a renamed column, “Tables For Two.” She opened with a description of a police raid on a on old barroom where she had been apparently enjoying a nice beefsteak. She then abandoned the “slums” for the Plaza Hotel, where she spied none other than Charlie Chaplin and Adolph Menjou:

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Ads return to the back cover, an indication that things are picking up:

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The poster above was created by American illustrator Rose O’Neill, who is best known as the creator of the popular Kewpie comic characters in 1909. The wildly popular Kewpies were later produced as dolls, and became one of the first mass-marketed toys in America. Raised in rural Nebraska, O’Neill was active in the women’s suffrage movement and at one point was the highest-paid female illustrator in the world.

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Rose O’Neill in 1907, and her famous creation (Wikipedia)

On the back cover, we are treated to some more great illustrations by artist Einar Nerman in this ad from Doubleday:

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And a whimsey from Julian de Miskey:

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Next time: Signs of Autumn…

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