Coney Island, 1927

The New Yorker welcomed spring with a cover featuring Peter Arno’s popular Whoops Sisters testing the waters at the beach…

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June 18, 1927 cover by Peter Arno, featuring his popular Whoops Sisters.

…and so was the New Yorker, on the south shores of Brooklyn to check out attractions old and new at Coney Island, paying a visit on an “off-day” to check out attractions ranging from incubating babies to the mechanical horse-race at the old Steeplechase:

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WEIRD BUT WORTH IT…Incubating babies on display at Coney Island in the early 1900s. At the time, most babies were born at home, so hospitals did not have incubators–considered to be untested (and expensive) equipment. Dr. Martin Couney featured the device in “incubator shows” at various World’s Fairs and as a permanent exhibit at Coney Island from 1903 to 1943. Although he found the public spectacle somewhat distasteful, Couney hoped the exhibits would prove that the new technology actually worked. Paying for staff and machinery through ticket sales, he saved the lives of perhaps 8,000 premature infants at Coney Island. (NY Historical Society)
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BEFORE THERE WAS NATHAN’S…Feltmans hot dog stand, circa 1930s. Feltman’s began as a pushcart business on the sand dunes of Coney Island in 1867, operated by German immigrant Charles Feltman, considered the inventor of the hot dog on a bun. By 1920 Feltman’s Ocean Pavilion covered a whole city block and served more than 5 million customers a year. (digital commonwealth.org)
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OFF TO THE RACES…Riders astride mechanical horses prepare to compete in the popular Coney Island Steeplechase in this postcard image circa 1915. (carouselhistory.com)
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LANDMARK…Coney Island’s famed Cyclone roller coaster opened in 1927. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
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ONE MILLION lights brightened Coney Island’s Luna Park on a summer evening in the 1920s. (carouselhistory.com)

Of course not everything was as dazzling as Luna Park at night. Like any carnival, Coney Island had its share of barkers announcing everything from games of “chance” to freak shows and a wax museum that depicted–among other grisly sights–the murder of Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth Snyder, and her lover, Judd Gray, and the subsequent execution of the notorious pair.

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GET YOUR DIME’S WORTH…Barkers at Coney Island’s Eden Musee wax museum advertise the wax dummy recreation of the Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray executions, circa 1928. The Snyder-Gray murder trial of 1927 was a national media sensation. (houseoftoomuchtrouble.tumblr.com)

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Charles Lindbergh, feted with his own wax image at Coney Island, was beginning to appear on the verge of a meltdown thanks to the relentless attention he was getting in the aftermath of his historic flight:

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Lois Long also seemed at her wit’s end, abruptly announcing to readers that her nightlife column, “Tables for Two,” would go on hiatus for the summer. No doubt this was a relief to Long, who seemed to be growing weary of the nightclub scene and was doing double duty as fashion writer (“On and Off the Avenue”) for the New Yorker:

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And perhaps there was another reason Long was taking a break–she would marry fellow New Yorker contributor and cartoonist Peter Arno on Aug. 13, 1927.

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Always poised to take a poke at the newspaper media, the New Yorker had some fun with the New York Times’ attempt to reproduce an early wirephoto of Clarence Chamberlin, the second man to pilot a fixed-wing aircraft across the Atlantic from New York to Europe, while carrying the first transatlantic passenger, Charles Levine. The original photo apparently showed Chamberlain and Levine being greeted by the mayor of Kottbus, Germany:

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Charles Levine took a plane to Europe, but most still had to settle for the more leisurely pace of a steamship. Below is a two-page advertisement featured in the center of the June 18 issue for an around the world excursion on the Hamburg-American Line (click to enlarge):

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And finally, this advertisement in the back pages for Old Gold cigarettes, which claimed to be “coughless”….

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The artist for these Old Gold ads was Clare Briggs, an early American comic strip artist who rose to fame in 1904 with his strip A. Piker Clerk. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska gave Briggs the material he needed to depict Midwestern Americana, a style that would influence later cartoonists such as Frank King (Gasoline Alley).

Next Time: Île-de-France…

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Unfit to Print

The journalist and screenwriter Ben Hecht wrote the “Reporter at Large” column for the early New Yorker, and for the April 30, 1927 issue took aim at the shoddy coverage of the Ruth Snyder murder trial at the Long Island City Courthouse.

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April 30, 1927 cover by Carl Rose.

Hecht was appalled by the media’s use of celebrity “experts” to cover the trial, which only served to sensationalize and trivialize the proceedings:

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Ben Hecht (Alamy)

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The Ruth Snyder trial dominated headlines in 1927. A housewife from Queens, Snyder began an affair in 1925 with Henry Judd Gray, a married corset salesman. After she persuaded her husband, Albert Snyder, to purchase life insurance, she enlisted Gray’s help to murder her husband. On March 20, 1927 the couple garrotted Albert Snyder (after bludgeoning him with a sash weight) and then staged the murder scene to look like a burglary.

The trial was covered by such figures as former Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, movie director D. W. Griffith, author Damon Runyon, popular philosopher Will Durant, and James M. Cain, a crime reporter who went on to write Double Indemnity, which was later made into a major Hollywood movie. Hecht (who would go on to co-write a hugely successful play about newspaper reporters, The Front Page) would have none of this celebrity circus. Some excerpts:

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Ruth Snyder would not be acquitted (or live to write reviews), but instead would go to Sing Sing’s electric chair on Jan. 12, 1928. The 32-year-old Snyder would go to the chair first, followed shortly thereafter by her former lover and accomplice, 35-year-old Henry Judd Gray. The pair had sealed each other’s fate: During the trial, Snyder and Gray had turned on each other, contending the other was responsible for killing Albert Snyder.

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BUSTED…Ruth Snyder in custody and behind bars at the Queens County Jail. (Criminal Encyclopedia/NY Daily News)
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END OF THE LINE…Mugshots of Ruth Snyder and Henry Judd Gray taken at Sing Sing Prison following their conviction. (Lloyd Sealy Library, CUNY)
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NATIONAL SENSATION…The cover of Jan. 13, 1928, issue of the New York Daily News. Although photographs of the execution were not allowed, photographer Tom Howard took this now-famous photo of Snyder at the moment of her execution with the aid of a miniature camera strapped to his ankle. (newseum.org)

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On to a lighter topic…The Sherry-Netherland Hotel has graced the corner of Fifth Avenue and East 59th Street since 1927, and when it was built it was the tallest apartment-hotel in New York City.

The building was nearing completion when around 8 pm on April 12, 1927, fire broke out on wood plank scaffolding surrounding the top floors. Firefighters responded only to find they lacked water pressure to fight the blaze.

According to the New York Times (“The Night a Hotel Turned Into a Torch,” Nov. 15, 2012), the fire was watched by hundreds of thousands, and “the windows of the Plaza Hotel across the street were ‘black with people’; every front room was engaged, either by news organizations or for spontaneous parties to watch the fire.”

Planks tumbled to the street for hours, and The Times said one “sailed in a crazy parabola” and crashed against the Savoy-Plaza, also nearly finished; occasionally minor collapses of the scaffolding turned the picturesque top into a “lofty Roman candle.” The crowds on the street could feel the heat on their faces, and the roar and crackle of the fire could be heard for blocks around. The fire burned itself out around midnight.

Oddly, the New Yorker had little to say about the fire, mentioning it only in passing in this “Talk of the Town” item:

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HOT TIME IN THE CITY…In 1927 the Sherry-Netherland caught on fire, creating what The New York Times called “the best show of the season.” The newspaper ran this photo (left), retouching it for contrast (NYT). At right, the hotel as it appears today (Wikipedia)

An interesting side note…at the time of the Sherry-Netherland’s construction, the nearby Vanderbilt mansion was being demolished. Carved limestone panels from the mansion’s porte-cochere as well as ornamental frieze roundels were salvaged and installed in the Sherry-Netherland’s lobby.

Hollywood movies continued to disappoint New Yorker critics, including Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The King of Kings.

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screen-shot-2016-09-06-at-12-59-22-pmFinally, a couple of advertisements from the April 30 issue. It was spring, and time to hit the links…

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…and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno plugged his new book featuring the Whoops Sisters:

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Next time: Those Restless Natives…

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The Circus Comes to Town

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

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

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

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

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(Vintage Everyday)

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

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

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Zip the pinhead (Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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(Forbes)

Even taller residential towers are in the works.

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

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and this “generation gap” observation by Helen Hokinson:

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Next Time: Batter Up

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