Back to Broadway

From the 1920s to the 1950s the husband-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the most celebrated couple on the Broadway stage, and even today many rank them as the greatest acting team in the history of American theatre.

April 28, 1928 cover by Julian de Miskey.

Lunt (1892-1977) and Fontanne (1887-1983) were so inseparable as a team that it was virtually impossible to write about just one of them, as Timothy Vane discovered when he contributed this profile of Lunt to the April 28, 1928 issue of the New Yorker:

INSEPARABLE…The Lunts in the 1920s, as photographed by Nickolas Muray. In 1999 the U.S. Postal Service paid tribute to them with a first- class stamp. (Conde Nast/USPS)

Vane described the couple’s tireless comings and goings, in which even a vacation abroad entailed preparations for future performances:

OLD FRIENDS…Noel Coward (left) Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in Coward’s 1932 play Design For Living. A close friend of Lunt and Fontanne, Coward enjoys a relaxing moment (right) at the couple’s “Ten Chimneys” estate in Lunt’s home state of Wisconsin. (Getty/tenchimneys.org)
IT REALLY HAS TEN CHIMNEYS…At left, the main house at Lunt and Fontanne’s “Ten Chimneys.” At right, the estate’s ‘Falu-Red’ Cottage. The estate was named a National Historic Landmark in 2003. (tenchimneys.org)

Although it was long rumored that Lunt and Fontanne had a lavender marriage, the couple were truly inseparable during their 55-year union.

According to the Ten Chimneys Foundation, by the mid 1920s Lunt and Fontanne were the two most popular, critically acclaimed, and highest-paid stage actors in the country. Lunt and Fontanne also believed that creating great theatre with broad impact was far more important than money, so at the height of their careers they took enormous pay cuts to sign on with The Theatre Guild—a new company dedicated to performing avant-garde work by writers such as Ibsen and Shaw. Because they took such large cuts in salary, they were able to stipulate in their contracts that they only act together, rather than in separate plays. From 1928 until they retired in 1960, the Lunts never appeared on stage separately.

And Then There Were Hearst & Davies

Another famed duo of the 1920s, Marion Davies (1897-1961) and William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951), were perhaps a less successful partnership, and particularly so for Davies, who traded a promising career as a comedic actress for a romantic (and scandalous) relationship with the famed newspaper tycoon.

Davies was emerging as a talented film comedian when Hearst took over her career—financing her films, promoting her through his media empire, and, most critically, pressuring studios to cast her in historical dramas which were not her forté. This is why she is remembered today as Hearst’s mistress and the hostess of lavish events for the Hollywood elite at San Simeon, and not for her acting chops, which were considerable when she was given the chance. When Hearst did allow her to show her comedic side in The Patsy,  even the New Yorker’s irascible critic “O.C.” took notice and offered rare praise:

SHOWING HER FUN SIDE…Left, publicity photo of Marion Davies, late 1920s. At right, Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) vies for the attentions of her mother, Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) and sister Grace Harrington (Jane Winton) in King Vidor’s 1928 hit comedy The Patsy. The film was co-produced by William Randolph Hearst along with Davies and Vidor.(cinemaartscentre.org)

A 2012 review of The Patsy by the Cinema Arts Center (Long Island, NY), noted that “Davies radiates comic charm, highlighted by her dead-on impersonations of the three cinema divas, in this audience pleaser…Gloriously fun and frothy, The Patsy was the biggest hit of Davies’ career.”

One of the actresses parodied in The Patsy by Davies, Pola Negri, did not fare so well in O.C.’s crosshairs in her “stilted” Three Sinners.

PSSST…LIGHTEN UP, WILL YA?…Warner Baxter and Pola Negri in Three Sinners (1928). (Paramount)

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Another Bad Girl

Not well known today, but after 1928 Viña Delmar (1903-1990) was practically a household name thanks to her breakthrough novel, Bad Girl, which she published at the tender age of 23. A cautionary tale about premarital sex and married life among the proles, the book was banned in Boston but was also the April 1928 selection by the Literary Guild. It was one the year’s best sellers.

On the heels of Bad Girl, in 1929 Delmar published two more books with risqué titles, Kept Woman and Loose Ladies. She would write a total of 23 novels between 1928 and 1976, and with her husband, Eugene, would write or adapt 18 plays that were produced as films. Among those was the screenplay to the acclaimed screwball comedy, The Awful Truth, for which she was nominated for a 1937 Academy Award.

BAD GIRL, GOOD SALES…Clockwise, from upper left: a screenshot of Delmar from the trailer for 1934’s Sadie McKee, a film starring Joan Crawford based on Delmar’s 1933 short story “Pretty Sadie McKee”; an ad for Bad Girl in the April 28, 1928 New Yorker; original jacket cover for Bad Girl; a 1930 advertisement for the film Dance Hall, based on a 1929 Delmar short story. (Wikipedia/New Yorker/Amazon/immortalephemera.com)

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And finally, our cartoon from April 28, 1928, courtesy Peter Arno:

Next Time: After Hours…

The Castle Builder

Publisher William Randolph Hearst was a larger-than-life personality who inspired writer Herman Mankiewicz — an early New Yorker contributor — to pen the screenplay for Orson Welles’ film Citizen Kane.

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April 23, 1927 cover by Andre De Schaub.

So when the New Yorker featured Hearst in its April 23, 1927 “Profile,” it required five lengthy installments by the writer (and Hearst biographer) John K. Winkler, who began the profile with this observation:

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MAKE NO SMALL PLANS…William Randolph Hearst reviews blueprints with the architect of Hearst Castle, Julia Morgan, in 1926. (Wikipedia)

Winkler detailed Hearst’s plunder of European art and architecture — much of it sitting on a wharf below his “castle” at San Simeon on California’s Central Coast — awaiting architect Julia Morgan’s decision on where it might fit into the fabric of what became one of America’s most famous “homes.” Later in the profile Winkler described Hearst’s purchase of St. Donat’s Castle in Wales, and his acquisition of another castle that he had dismantled and shipped to San Simeon.

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Hearst Castle at San Simeon. (sfgate)
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LEGENDARY PARTIES FOR THE LEGENDS…Hollywood actors pose for a photo at one of the famed Hearst costume parties…(back row) Douglas Montgomery, Leslie Howard, Marion Davies, unidentified man (front row) Bruce Cabot, George K. Arthur, Ramon Navarro & Eileen Perry. (moviemorlocks.com)
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HOST & HOSTESS…Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies, at one of their famous San Simeon costume balls (oldloves.tumblr.com)

The mid-1920s to the mid-1930s were glory days at San Simeon. In his Great Hall Hearst “held court” with movie stars and statesmen who also attended famous costume parties hosted by Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies.

The profile writer, John K. Winkler, would publish two books on Hearst in 1928 and 1955, as well as books on other captains of industry including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, F.W. Woolworth, J. Pierpont Morgan and the DuPont family.

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The Germany-based Hamburg America Line had been a major player in moving both passengers and freight between Europe and North America since 1847. In 1914, its passenger flagship, the Vaterland, was caught in port at Hoboken, New Jersey at the outbreak of World War I. She was later seized, renamed Leviathan after the declaration of war on Germany in 1917, and served as a U.S. troopship. So it was significant to European travelers (including many New Yorker readers) that the line was out to regain its former glory with the launch of the New York.

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Cover of the passenger list for the New York.
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Photo of the departure of the steamship New York.

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Lois Long chronicled nightly escapades of drinking, dining, and dancing for The New Yorker in her column “Tables for Two,” and she often teased her readers about her true identity. Although in reality she was young (26), attractive and a big partier, she often described herself to readers as a bit of wallflower, or a “short squat maiden of forty.” When her marriage to The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno was announced in August 1927, her true identity was revealed.

Long seemed to be growing bored with New York nightlife, as evidenced by shorter “Tables” columns (the feature would end in 1930) while her fashion column — On and Off the Avenue — took on more importance. In her “Tables” column for the April 23, 1927 issue, she devoted most of it to yet another playful deception for her readers.

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The artwork that accompanied Lois Long’s “Tables for Two” column often featured this pair of bored nightclub patrons. Lois Long, with stylish bob, shown during her New Yorker days in the 1920s.

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This time she portrays herself as a bookish spinster…

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In other diversions, “Talk of the Town” made this mention of the Orteig Prize, a reward offered to the first aviator to fly non-stop from New York City to Paris or vice versa. Of course we know Charles Lindbergh would capture the prize the following month (and six others would die trying):

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In advertising, the issue featured this promotion for radio station WOR. Broadcast radio was in its infancy in 1927, and this is one of the first ads of its kind to appear in the New Yorker:

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The following advertisement for Balcrank auto bumpers tells you a lot about the bourgeois New Yorker reader it is trying to reach. It suggests the addition of these bumpers to your car will lend an upper class touch people will admire and notice — everyone from the traffic cop in the signal tower to the smart couple who seem to be inches away from having their feet run over.

I love the smug expression worn by the female passenger. Of course the actual old money upper class wouldn’t see this ad — they could care less about bumpers — and would be reading Town & Country, the Social Register, or nothing at all. Funny how the early New Yorker loved to tweak the nose of the upper class, all the while running ads that appealed to a grasping bourgeois desire for status. The bumper ad says it all.

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The issue included this cartoon by Wallace Morgan, set in Central Park. Displayed across a two-page spread, the caption reads: SHE: “Let’s just sit back Wilmot, and pretend we’re living in grandmother’s day.” (click to enlarge)

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And finally, the Barnum and Bailey Circus was in town, so we end with this cartoon by Carl Rose:

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Next Time: Unfit to Print…

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The Ordeal of Michael Arlen

The March 28 “Talk of the Town” ponders “what sort of paces a visiting literary lion may be expected to put through.”

The “literary lion” in question was writer Michael Arlen, who was planning his escape from New York  by reserving a cabin on the Olympic for its April 18 sailing: “It is expected that very few of his writing compatriots in London will venture America-wards after he reports on the ritual to which he was subjected.” The “ritual,” it seems, was Arlen’s constant exposure to various literary hangers-on and assorted socialites.

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March 28, 1925 cover by Ray Rohn (New Yorker Digital Archive)

Arlen’s real name was Dikran Kouyoumdjian, an Armenian writer transplanted to England who was most famous for his satirical romances set in English smart society. He also wrote psychological thrillers, including The Gentleman from America, filmed in 1956 (the year Arlen died) as a television episode for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was well known in New York and London society, a dandy who resembled many of the characters he portrayed in his novels.

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Arlen in 1925 (Bettmann/Corbis)

Returning to the “ritual,” Arlen received “the reasonably constant chaperonage, at tea time, of John Farrar” (editor of the literary magazine The Bookman) who took it upon himself to add Arlen’s publishing interests to his duties (Farrar would go on to found the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart, and later Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

“Talk” also noted that Arlen was “admitted into the game known as meeting Miss Elsie de Wolfe.”

A bit more about Miss de Wolfe: In the September 14, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear observed that “Interior design as a profession was invented by Elsie de Wolfe.” A prominent figure in New York, Paris, and London society, de Wolfe was also an American stage actress and author of the bestselling 1913 book, The House in Good Taste.

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Elsie de Wolfe in 1925 (Architectural Digest)

During Arlen’s first two weeks in America, de Wolfe arranged no less than three formal gatherings, each with the purpose of introducing the author to herself. “Talk” also reported that Arlen was invited to a costume party given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst, for which Paramount Studios producer Jesse Lasky “gracefully supplied (Arlen) with a gypsy costume.” It was noted that Lasky was there to arrange some movie work with Arlen to occur later in the fall, when the author would return to New York to attend the opening of the Broadway play The Green Hat, based on the 1924 book that made him famous.

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Pola Negri in the 1920s (doctor macro.com)

Arlen was then to depart for Hollywood to “adjust his ideas into adequate scenario form for Miss Pola Negri.” Negri was a Polish stage and screen star world famous for her roles as a femme fatale. Her personal life often made headlines in the gossip magazines of the day, fueled by a series of love affairs that included Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino. Negri would not land the female lead for The Green Hat; it would eventually go to Greta Garbo in a 1928 film titled A Woman of Affairs.

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Greta Garbo and  John Gilbert in A Woman of Affairs (1928), a silent film based on The Green Hat. (ggarbo.weebly.com)

“Talk” reported that “ Mr. Arlen, early in his American visit learned a piece of social usage that has stood him in good stead. This has involved, upon introduction to any stranger, his saying rapidly “Didn’t I meet you at tea?” whereupon the gratified stranger murmurs yes and has become a friend for life. This stratagem is said to have suggested itself to Mr. Arlen when he noticed that the average number of guests at teas in his honor was around two hundred.” The columnist noted that “that this business of becoming a friend for life” was a bit of literary exaggeration, and in reality the magazine:

has seldom seen such atrocious behavior and lack of fundamental good manners as has characterized a large proportion of the people who have been brought forward to met Mr. Arlen. Seemingly ignoring the fact that there was no law compelling their attendance at a function in Mr. Arlen’s honor, ever so many persons have come to his parties with an axe rather awkwardly concealed behind them.

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John McGraw (howstuffworks)

The “Profile” in issue featured John McGraw and proclaimed that he “is baseball…the incarnation of the national sport.” The piece was titled “Mr. Muggsy,” a nickname reportedly detested by McGraw because, as the magazine observed, “it is so perfectly descriptive.”

At the time of the writing, McGraw was manager and part-owner of the New York (baseball) Giants. He still holds the record for the most wins of a manager in the National League.

The issue also featured a humorous column by Frank Sullivan, which took aim at the complexity (and likely graft) of taxicab fares. The caption reads: The Taxicab System is Simple to Any Man with a Master’s Degree.

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The April 4 Issue, the “gypsy-themed party” continues…

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April 4, 1925, cover by Ilonka Karasz (New Yorker Digital Archive)

The following week’s issue of “The Talk of Town” (April 4) offered more details regarding the “gypsy-themed costume party” given by Mrs. William Randolph Hearst at the Hotel Ritz-Carlton and attended by Michael Arlen.

The party was in honor of Ambassador Alexander Pollock Moore’s departure to his Spanish post (he left the post later that year and served as ambassador to Peru in 1928-29. He died at age 63 in 1930).

The item noted that the widower Moore (his wife, famed stage actress Lillian Russell, died in 1922) during an earlier Condé Nast event for the “theatrical and literary world,” never rose from his chair without scattering to the winds a dozen or more ingénues who had been draping themselves around him…”

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The tented ceiling and glittering chandeliers of the Ritz-Carlton’s Crystal Room. The hotel at 46th and Madison opened in 1911 and was torn down just 40 years later, in 1951.

“Talk” shared accounts from the New York American and the New York Mirror that described the Ritz’s famous Crystal Room as decorated to resemble a “gypsy camp,” complete with organ grinder and monkey wandering through the crowd.

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A much thinner W.C. Fields of the vaudeville circuit, here in a still from the movie Sally of the Sawdust (1925) (Film Forum)

Entertainment at the event featured a cabaret with vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who apparently “gazed at his distinguished audience and allowed his thoughts to play with the wealth of juggleable material that confronted him.”

Finally, “Of All Things” noted that “The Turks are said to be mobilizing a hundred thousand men in an effort to affect the Mosul boundary decision but, despite this display of force, we have every confidence that right and justice and Christian civilization will prevail and the British will get their oil.”

The League of Nations awarded Mosul to Iraq, and to the British a 25-year mandate over Iraq (at this writing Mosul is firmly under the control of the Islamic State).

“Books” looked at Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil and suggested that it is not “A-One Maugham.” It also mentioned the New Yorker’s own Alexander Woollcott and his The Story of Irving Berlin, described as “uncommonly pleasant reading.”