The Red House

From the 1930s until the 1950s, New York City was the one place where American communists almost became a mass movement.

Sept. 10, 1932 cover by Theodore Haupt.

Writing in the New York Times opinion section (Oct. 20, 2017), Maurice Isserman observed how in those days New York party members “could live in a milieu where co-workers, neighbors and the family dentist were fellow Communists; they bought life insurance policies from party-controlled fraternal organizations; they could even spend their evenings out in night clubs run by Communist sympathizers…” The journalist Matthew Josephson penned a report on the movement for the Sept. 17 (yes we are skipping ahead)Reporter at Large” column titled “The Red House”…excerpts:

According to Isserman (a professor of history at Hamilton College), in 1938 the Communist Party of America counted 38,000 members in New York State alone, most of them living in New York City. A Communist candidate for president of the board of aldermen received nearly 100,000 votes that same year, with party members playing a central role in promoting trade unions.

BOSS’S DAY…Communists march at Union Square against “the boss class” at a 1930 rally in New York City.  (Oxford Research Encyclopedias)
PARTY INVITATION…William Z. Foster and James W. Ford were on the Communist ticket in the 1932 U.S. presidential elections. Ford (1893–1957) was also on the 1936 and 1940 tickets as a vice-presidential candidate. (peoplesworld.org)

Josephson commented on the candidates appearing on the Communist ticket in the 1932 U.S. presidential elections, finding James W. Ford to be “much more intellectual” than his running mate:

THE HQ…Communist Party of America headquarters, 13th St., New York City, 1934; a close-up view of the Workers’ Bookshop display window in 1942. (USC Libraries/Library of Congress)
A regular New Yorker contributor, journalist Matthew Josephson (1899–1978) popularized the term “robber baron” with the publication of his 1934 book, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists.

Josephson concluded his article with observation of a party protest event, and one unmoved police officer…

Postscript: The Cold War in the 1950s and a renewed Red Scare spelled the end of the party’s heyday, as did Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech that denounced the murderous legacy of his predecessor, Josef Stalin.

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Très Chic

For those with means, the idea of living in the same building with other non-family humans seemed unseemly, but in 1870 Rutherford Stuyvesant hired Richard Morris Hunt to design a five-story apartment building for middle-class folks that had a decidedly Parisian flair. The Sept. 10 “Talk of the Town” explained:


According to Ephemeral New York, the apartments were initially dubbed a “folly,” but the building’s 16 apartments and four artists’ studios — located near chic Union Square — were quickly snapped up, creating a demand for more apartments. The building remained fully occupied until it was demolished in 1958. According to another favorite blog — Daytonian in Manhattan—demolition of Morris Hunt’s soundly built, sound-proof building was a challenge.

IT DIDN’T GO QUIETLY…Stuyvesant Flats at 142 East 18th Street, 1935, in a photo by Berenice Abbott. It was demolished in 1958. (New York Public Library)

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Some Characters

I include this brief snippet of the Sept. 10 “Profile” for the jolly illustration by Abe Birnbaum of Al Smith, Jimmy Hayes and the Prince of Wales…

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Down In Front

E.B. White was always on the lookout for the newfangled in the world of transportation, but this latest development by the Long Island Railroad was not a breath of fresh air…

STACK ‘EM UP…A woman wears a bemused expression (left) as she takes in her surroundings on one of the Long Island Railroad’s new double-decked cars in 1932. (trainsarefun.com)

White also looked in on the latest news from the world of genetics—with hindsight we can read about these developments with a degree of alarm, since Hitler was months away from taking control of Germany…

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Showing His Colors

On to lighter matters, critic John Mosher enjoyed an eight-minute animated Walt Disney short, Flowers and Trees—the first commercially released film made in full-color Technicolor…

SEEING GREEN…Walt Disney’s Flowers and Trees won the very first Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film in 1932. (intanibase.com)

…Mosher also took in light entertainment of the live-action variety with Marion Davies and Billie Dove providing some amusement in Blonde of the Follies, although the picture could have used a bit more Jimmy Durante, billed as a co-star but making an all-too-brief appearance…

WHERE’S THE DUDE WITH THE SCHNOZ?…Billie Dove (left) starred with headliner Marion Davies in Blondie of the Follies, but another co-star, comedian Jimmy Durante, was mostly absent from the picture. (IMDB)

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From Our Advertisers

Lord & Taylor announced the return of Edwardian styles as the latest in fashion among the younger set, once again proving what goes around comes around, ad infinitum

…except when it comes to “college styles”…I don’t see this look returning to our campuses anytime soon…

…the end of Prohibition was still a year away, but at least in New York it was all but over…I like the Hoffman ad and its winking line “with or without”…

…as a courtesy to readers (and to fill a blank space) the New Yorker    “presented” a full page of signature ads touting a variety of specialty schools and courses…the Carson Long Military Academy (right hand column) closed in 2018 after 182 years of “making men”…

…on to our cartoonists and illustrators, we begin with this Izzy Klein illustration in the opening pages…

Rea Irvin gave us a nervous moment at the altar…

…and Richard Decker showed us one groovy grandma…

…on to the Sept. 17 issue (which we dipped into at the start)…and what a way to begin with this terrific cover by Peter Arno

Sept. 17, 1932 cover by Peter Arno.

…in his “Notes and Comments,” E.B. White offered some parting words for the departing (and scandal-ridden) Mayor Jimmy Walker

THAT’S ALL FOLKS…Deposed New York Mayor Jimmy Walker skipped town shortly after he left office and caught a boat to Europe. He is seen here at his wedding to Betty Compton in Cannes, April 1933. (Library of Congress)

…and Howard Brubaker added his two cents regarding Walker and his replacement, Joseph McKee, who served as acting mayor until Dec. 31, 1932…

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Heady Role

The British actor Claude Rains earned his acting chops on the London Stage before coming to Broadway, where in 1932 he appeared in The Man Who Reclaimed His HeadE.B. White was subbing for regular critic Robert Benchley, and concluded that Rains should have used his own head before agreeing to appear in such silly stuff…

NO MORE HEAD JOKES, PLEASE…Although he got a late start on his Hollywood career, Claude Rains (1889—1967) became one of the silver screen’s great character stars. (Playbill)

…and speaking of the silver screen, we turn to critic John Mosher and his review of the 1931 German film

WOMEN IN REVOLT…The New York Times (in 2020) describes 1931’s  “expression of anti-fascism and a lesbian coming-out story.” The film was a success throughout Europe, but was later banned as “decadent” by the Nazi regime. Above, Ellen Schwanneke, left, and Hertha Thiele in Mädchen in Uniform. (Kino Lorber)

Mädchen in Uniform was almost banned in the U.S., but Eleanor Roosevelt spoke highly of the film, resulting in a limited US release (albeit a heavily-cut version) in 1932–33.

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From Our Advertisers

I’m featuring this detail from an Elizabeth Arden ad because the illustrator’s style is so distinct…if someone knows the identity of the artist, please let us know (on other drawings I’ve seen a signature that looks like “coco”)…

…invented in 1918, this “cheese food” made from milk, water, whey, milk protein concentrate, milkfat, whey protein concentrate and sodium phosphates — among other things — was acquired by Kraft in 1927 and marketed in the 1930s as a nutritious health food…I have to say I haven’t seen any Velveeta ads in the New Yorker as of late…

…”Pier 57, North River!” barks the successful-looking man to the admiring cabby who’s thinking “lucky dog!”…

…on the other hand, Peter Arno (kicking off our Sept. 17 cartoons) gave us a Milquetoast who wasn’t getting anywhere near the French Line, or First Base…

…and speaking of the mild-mannered, James Thurber offered up this fellow…

Helen Hokinson’s “girls” were perhaps wondering if their driver was among the Commies at Union Square…

John Held Jr. entertained with another “naughty” Victorian portrait…

Robert Day, and wish unfulfilled at the zoo…

…and we close with Richard Decker, and trouble in the Yankee dugout…

Next Time: A Picture’s Worth…

The Mouse That Roared

In the spring of 1928, Walt Disney collaborated with cartoonist Ub Iwerks in creating a new cartoon character, Mickey Mouse, and later that year Mickey would be featured in the first-ever post-produced sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. The film was an immediate hit, bringing almost instant fame to Disney.

Dec. 19, 1931…A classic cover by Peter Arno.

Just three years after the birth of Mickey, Disney had already carved a place for himself in American culture, drawing the attention of millions of Mickey fans —  and one critic for the New Yorker — Gilbert Seldes, who penned a “Profile” of the “Mickey-Mouse Maker” (illustration by Hugo Gellert). Note in the second of these two excerpts how Disney was already connecting his product to patriotism and clean living through his Mickey Mouse Clubs:

CASH COW…ER…MOUSE…Left, Walt Disney poses with his famous creation in 1935; top right, the Disney family in 1915: Parents Elias and Flora Disney in back row, right; Walt is seated with sister Ruth in front; photo of Disney proves the merchandising value of his little mouse from the very start.
A THING OF NIGHTMARES…Before the television show there was a theater-based Mickey Mouse Club. Pictured above is an early meeting of the Club at a theater in Ocean Park, California. Although the Club had 1 million members in the U.S. by 1932, Disney pulled the plug on the clubs in 1935. They were revived through several television series in 1955-59, 1977-79, and 1989-1994 (that last class featured a number of future stars including Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake. (www.vintag.es)

In his conclusion, Seldes marveled at Disney’s productivity — a new picture made every two weeks — and his seemingly endless creativity. Little could Seldes imagine that one day the man and his mouse would become a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate.

I’M YOUR VEHICLE, BABY…Mickey gives Minnie a ride in his cab in 1931’s Traffic Troubles.

You can watch 1931’s Traffic Troubles here:

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Big Man on Canvas

It seems the earth almost shook when Mexican artist Diego Rivera arrived in New York for only the second one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art. His work habits, his comings and goings, and his enormous size (modest by today’s standards) were reported in the New Yorker, including this entry in “The Talk of the Town”…

COME TO MOMA…Cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s catalog for the Diego Rivera exhibition.
MAN AT WORK…Left, Diego Rivera at work on The Uprising, at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1931. Rivera painted five frescoes on portable supports of steel-braced cement in conjunction with his MoMA exhibition. Among the works featured was The Rivals (right), which sold for $9.76 million in 2018, overtaking an auction record for Latin American art previously set by his wife, Frida Kahlo. Her Two Nudes in the Forest sold for $8 million in 2016. (MoMA/Pinterest)

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Winds of War

It’s the end of 1931, but one can already detect the rumblings of the future to come, namely world war. The former Allied and Axis powers of the First World War were all busy developing new weapons, particularly of the airborne variety that all believed would provide a decisive edge if (or rather when) the next war commenced. Japan was already making moves on China, and in just four years the Germans would reoccupy the Saarland and Italy would invade Ethiopia. E.B. White, in his “Notes and Comment,” found the current state of affairs more than a bit troubling…

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE…Wars and rumors of wars drove rapid advances in aviation in the 28 years following the Wright Brothers’ first flight. The Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company developed the A-8 (above) in 1930-31 to serve as a ground-attack aircraft. (ww2aircraft.net)

…and hints of the world to come could also be found in Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things” column, where he made this observation:

Brubaker was likely referring to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cautious approach to announcing his candidacy for president. The outcome, of course, proved quite different for the German people.

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From Our Advertisers

Preparations for war drove the development of the aircraft industry, which quickly adapted its designs during peacetime for civilian purposes. This ad from United Airlines touted the advantages of plane over train travel for corporate executives. Within 30 years the airlines would indeed supplant railroads as the preferred means for business travel…

…Prohibition would remain in force until the end of 1933, so brewers like Anheuser-Busch continued finding ways to link their non-alcoholic products to the ghosts of drinking past…

…on to our cartoons, James Thurber rendered this apt portrait of our civilization…

Barbara Shermund gave us an actress with a reputation to protect…

…and Garrett Price presented an unlikely harmonica player…

…on to our next issue, where we find more Diego Rivera

Dec. 26, 1931 cover by Madeline S. Pereny. Artist’s note: Pereny (1893–1970) was born in Kecskemet, Hungary. A baroness, she studied at Vienna Art Academy before emigrating to the U.S. in the early 1930’s. In addition to creating cover art and illustrations for The New Yorker, she was also a cartoonist for the Disney Studios.

…and we begin with this entry from “The Talk of the Town,” attributed to James Thurber

WHERE’S DIEGO?…in December 1931 he could be found working on his frescoes on the sixth floor of the Heckscher Building — the Museum of Modern Art’s first home. In the foreground is the Cornelius Vanderbilt mansion, demolished in 1926. (Library of Congress)
GET THE POINT?…Thurber referred to Diego Rivera’s Indian Warrior, one of five frescoes Rivera created during his Museum of Modern Art exhibition.

Thurber refers to “a lady” who accompanied Rivera, most likely Frida Kahlo, who was emerging as an artist in her own right around this time.

PORTRAIT OF A LADY…Wedding photograph of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, 1929. (Throckmorton Fine Art)

More on Diego could be found in the art review section, where critic Murdock Pemberton offered a cautionary message to the rabble who might not abide some of the artist’s controversial themes:

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Head Cracker

In the 1920s and 30s Johnny Broderick was known as New York’s toughest cop, known for personally assaulting gangsters (and suspects) and for once facing down armed gunmen during a prison break at the Tombs. His valor won him many fans (and some detractors), making him a local celebrity and a subject of gossip columns. Reporter Joel Sayre offered his assessment of Broderick in a “Profile” for the Dec. 26 issue (illustration by Abe Birnbaum). Excerpts:

WISE GUY, EH?…Johnny Broderick (see arrow) escorts an unfortunate perp in 1927. (Public Domain)

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Something to Cheer About

On the lighter side, Hollywood took a shot at Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy of manners, Private Lives. The original play featured Gertrude Lawrence and Laurence Olivier, while the Hollywood version Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.  For once, critic John Mosher actually liked this screen adaptation:

GIVE ME THAT LOVIN’ FEELING…Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery in the film adaptation of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. (TCM)

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From Our Advertisers

Just one ad from the Dec. 26 issue to close out the year, and what better way to say “Merry Christmas” than with a fresh cigarette…

…on to our cartoonists, William Crawford Galbraith offered a look backstage in this two-page illustration across the bottom of “The Talk of the Town”…

Richard Decker showed us the importance of making oneself clear, especially when aloft in a dirigible…

Robert Day found humor in a barren landscape…

Garrett Price offered us a cheesy predicament…

Helen Hokinson found a man about to make an important point…

…and we end 1931 with this classic from James Thurber

Next Time: Thurber’s Dogs…