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…

Amateur Beauty

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Cover for Sept. 19 by Max Ree.

It was a busy week for the Sept. 19 issue of The New Yorker. “The Talk of the Town” reported that ‘amateur beauties” at the Atlantic City Beauty Pageant (known today as the Miss America Pageant) were “protesting against the presence of professional sisters in the contest.” Talk then posed this question:

“Is beauty, one wondered, ever amateur? Is it not the most professional of all professional matters? To a man it would seem so. But women may know better. And if there is a distinction—if we are to have amateur and professional beauties—why should not the Atlantic City promoters take a leaf from golf’s book and hold an open championship, wherein the two classes may meet?

Talk concluded:

The winner of last year’s beauty contest, Miss Ruth Malcomson, tells how she won it in a recent issue of Liberty; and from these writings we leap hastily to the conclusion that the very beautiful are also very very simple.

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Ruth Malcomson, Miss America 1924. (Vintage Everyday)

“Talk” was right about Ruth Malcomson, who was just 18 when she won the title. A native of Philadelphia, she defeated 85 fellow contestants including incumbent Mary Campbell, who was seeking her third consecutive crown. At the time the contest was only in its fourth year, and the winner was called “The Golden Mermaid.”

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Malcomson crowned “The Golden Mermaid,” Miss America 1924

Malcomson was among the critics of the “professional” contestants. According to her obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer (May 28, 1988) Malcomson stated in 1925 that “The pageant now has become nothing but a commercial proposition to exploit the beauties who make their living from their good looks. What chance has an ordinary girl, untrained, to win a contest in which girls who have been trained to make the most of their beauty are competing?”

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Ninety-one years later…Miss New York Kira Kazantsev crowned Miss America 2015. (The Blaze)

In her Liberty Magazine interview, she also blasted women’s groups for berating her involvement in the competition.

Malcomson hinted that the women’s groups were exploiting her, not the pageant (yes, there is nothing new under the sun…).

True to her word, Malcomson married an unassuming Carl Schaubel in 1931 and returned to a quiet, simple life in suburban Philadelphia.

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Standing next to the Rickenbacker car she won as Miss America in 1924, Ruth Malcomson playfully spars with World Heavyweight Champion boxer Jack Dempsey. (Vintage Everyday)

In other “Talk” items, the “No Smoking” rule at the public library was challenged, and arguments were made for special smoking rooms that could be reserved for writers. The column also offered comment on the growing popularity of tennis as a professional spectator sport, rather than merely a side activity for a society weekend:

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“Profiles” turned its attention to bodybuilder and publisher Bernarr McFadden (featured in an earlier post in this blog). McFadden was always at the cutting-edge of scandal, whether for the nearly nude photos featured in his Physical Culture Magazine, or for the celebrity scandal and sensational crime reported in his Evening Graphic.

In his essay “Murder As Bad Art,” Waldo Frank pondered America’s high homicide rate, and suggested that murder is an expedient means toward an end for the impatient American. An excerpt, with artwork by Helen Hokinson:

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Willa Cather (Nebraska History)

In “Books,” Harry Este Dounce offered a lengthy, thoughtful and positive review of Willa Cather’s latest novel, The Professor’s House (my favorite by Cather), and likened its tone to an Ibsen play. Cather would continue to receive praise from New Yorker critics throughout the remainder of her career.

In “Sports Of The Week” John Tunis offered extensive coverage of the Davis Cup matches, and noted that American star Bill Tilden was hurt and was “far from the Tilden of old.” There were rumors that Tilden was determined to throw his match with French tennis champion Jean Borotra. Tunis wrote that he had his suspicions, but offered that perhaps Tilden was playing carelessly as he had done before “with other less celebrated opponents.”

And Lois Long offered her frank opinions on two New York hotspots, the 45th Street Yacht Club and the Owl Club at 125 East 45th:

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The Yacht Club building today (erbology.com)

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And another ad courtesy of Raoul Fleischmann, with testimonials from a man and two women who credit Fleischmann yeast with curing them of boils, constipation and “bilous” attacks:

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Well, at least advertising revenue is up, but this ad seems out of place in a magazine like The New Yorker:

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Culkin was a Tammany Hall politician who would serve as county sheriff from 1926 to 1929. He was later indicted for embezzling interest money from the sheriff’s office, part of the whole mess that brought down Mayor Jimmy Walker (we will explore that later, I am sure).

Now, for a couple of cartoons by I. Klein and Johann Bull, featured on facing pages, that illustrate two very different aspects of New York life in the 1920s:

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Next time: Fall fashions!

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