Frozen at 30 Rock

To call Lewis Mumford an architecture critic would do him a disservice. He was indeed an outspoken voice on New York’s changing skyline, informed by a keen understanding of history and aesthetics, but his criticisms were also those of a philosopher, a political commentator, a city planner, and an authority on matters concerning art, literature, society and culture.

June 20, 1931 cover by S. Liam Dunne.

The June 20, 1931 issue marks the entrance of Mumford (1895-1990) to our New Yorker story, and just in time to offer his perspectives on the Rockefeller Center project, which was about to commence.

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD…This Midtown neighborhood was torn down shortly after the photo was taken to make room for the massive Rockefeller Center project. The view is from the corner of 6th Avenue and 51st Street looking to the southeast. One of the spires of St. Patrick’s is visible at far left, and the Chrysler Building can be glimpsed in the distant center. Lewis Mumford was no fan of giant skyscrapers or other “mega” building projects, and would have preferred something more on this smaller scale for Rockefeller Center. (Museum of the City of New York – MCNY)

The proposed project — then referred to as “Radio City” — received negative reviews from a number of critics, although the most pointed came from Mumford, who disliked “mega” building projects such as Rockefeller’s, labeling it as “weakly conceived, reckless, romantic chaos.”

RECKLESS, ROMANTIC CHAOS is how Lewis Mumford, left, described plans for Rockefeller Center. At right, the May 1931 issue of Popular Science featured the project’s plans. (Pinterest/Google Books)

Mumford’s Emersonian temperament favored simplicity, self-sufficiency and community; he believed skyscrapers and other “megamachines” were dehumanizing and even dishonest. In this next excerpt he poses a question about the so-called pragmatic “money men” behind the project: “Are the practical men practical?” We read on…

WELCOME TO CLOUDCUCKOOLAND…That was Mumford’s own term to describe plans for Rockefeller’s “Radio City.” An early rendering from 1928 (left) referred to the project as “Metropolitan Square,” and for a time it was slated to include a new Metropolitan Opera house.  Joseph Urban proposed this Fifth Avenue-facing design (right) in 1927, but plans were waylaid by the Great Depression. (ephemeralnewyork)
BLANK SLATE…With the site mostly cleared, construction commenced in the fall of 1931. This image is from December 16, 1931. (MCNY)

Mumford concluded that the opportunity to create a restful respite from the clamor of the city had been lost on the project, which just promised more “razzle-dazzle” and “incongruous jangle,” an interesting observation given that other New Yorker writers were generally dazzled by the skyscrapers and other gigantic projects that were rapidly erasing the old city.

True to his beliefs, Mumford lived a simple life in an old country house in Amenia, New York, a small town in the northern reaches of the Hudson Valley region.

FAR FROM THE RAZZLE-DAZZLE…Mumford house in Amenia, NY. (Wikipedia)

Historian Daniel Okrent, author of Great Fortune, The Epic of Rockefeller Center, notes that Mumford was eventually won over by Rockefeller Center in the end, calling it “a serene eyeful” and “the most exciting mass of buildings in the city.” I have to agree.

SERENE EYEFUL…Images of Rockefeller Center from 1939 (left) and 1935. (flickr.com/MCNY)

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Summertime Reads

A quick glance at the new books listed at the end of the New Yorker’s book review column shows us a nice variety of summertime diversions, including a book about Josef Stalin written before his Great Purge that murdered a million of his own citizens…then there was the memoir Blood on the Moon written by Jim Tully, “America’s most famous hobo author”…the book Life Among the Lowbrows by Eleanor Rowland Wembridge also caught my eye…I believe I’m almost set for the summer…

A STUDY IN CONTRASTS…Misfits and lowlifes peppered the books of both “hobo writer” Jim Tully (left) and psychologist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge, although from very different perspectives. While Wembridge took a more clinical approach to the underclasses, Tully used them for material in his hardscrabble stories. Guess which one ended up in Hollywood. (scpr.org/apadivisions.org)

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Jantzen swimwear took a slightly risqué approach in advertising their latest women’s line…

…the owners of the Majestic, on the other hand, used snob appeal and a sense of heightened grandeur to promote their Central Park West apartments…

…advertisers of non-alcoholic drinks tried their best to capture the allure of cocktails, and I imagine much of their product was mixed with something a bit more interesting…

William Steig was hitting his stride as one of the newer cartoon contributors to the New Yorker

…with two of his entries featured in the June 20 issue…Steig would live 95 years and be productive throughout his life…nearly 60 years after these cartoons appeared in the New Yorker he would publish the children’s book Shrek!, the basis for the popular movie series…

…earlier in his career, Steig would also find fame for his series of Small Fry cartoons featuring children in adult situations, anticipating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts…this next cartoon, however, is not by Steig but by Alan Dunn, perhaps anticipating Steig…

Gardner Rea continued to explore the foibles of the well-heeled…

John Held Jr amused us with another of his rustic “woodcuts”…

Garrett Price shot the rapids with a hapless suitor…

…here is one the six cartoons Crawford Young contributed to the New Yorker in 1931-32, capturing a moment in which the chicken-egg question is largely moot…

…and another look into the leisure classes courtesy Barbara Shermund

…and we close the June 20 issue with James Thurber, who showed us a fellow who probably regretted his evening out…

…Thurber also brings into the next issue, June 27…

June 27, 1931 cover by Gardner Rea

…in which he recounted his adventures in bird-watching and the mating habits of crows…

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A Falling (Lone) Star

In her “Letter From Paris,” Janet Flanner reported that the allure of the “Queen of the Nightclubs,” Texas Guinan, did not extend to French shores, where among other things she ran afoul of labor laws that dissuaded non-citizens from working in France.

BEGINNING OF THE END…Associated with risqué entertainments in various speakeasies during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression prompted Texas Guinan to take to the road with her show. After attempting (and failing) to make a tour of Europe, she returned to the States for one final road trip. Above left, Guinan in the 1933 film Broadway Through a Keyhole, which would open just three days before her death. At right, headline from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle trumpeting Guinan’s French debacle. (pre-code.com/

Upon her return to the States, Guinan took advantage of her well-publicized dismissal from France and launched the satirical revue Too Hot for Paris. This traveling show would also mark the beginning of the end for Guinan, who would contract amoebic dysentery during a run of the show at the Chicago World’s Fair. It would claim her life on Nov. 5, 1933, at age 49.

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They Put the Ping Into Pong

“They” being the Parker Brothers, who took umbrage at anyone who questioned their sole right to market genuine “Ping-Pong” balls. “The Talk of the Town” explained:

The “Talk” item ended with a little surprise about Mr. George Parker himself:

VINTAGE…A 1902 ping-pong set from Parker Brothers. (Worthpoint)

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From Our Advertisers

Some lovely color ads, including this message that paired playful porpoises with leaded gasoline…

…this ad was about color itself, and how Powers Reproduction Corporation could make your images pop…

…and another sad Prohibition-era ad from the makers of Budweiser, in this case, a non-alcoholic version that looks like the real thing…of course what is even sadder about this ad is the suggestion that plantation life was something one should fondly hearken back to…

…on to our cartoons, and another terrific illustration from Barbara Shermund

…and we have Otto Soglow’s Little King, who temporarily lost his crown…

…and another from Soglow, at the men’s store…

Carl Rose gave us a chap contemplating the burdens of a Guggenheim “genius” grant…

Peter Arno revealed that his Major had two left feet…

…and in anticipation of the Fourth of July, we end as we began, with Gardner Rea

Next Time: A Fourth to Remember…

 

 

A Star is Born

Clark Gable made such an impression as a charming rogue in 1931’s A Free Soul that it transformed him almost overnight from a bit actor to into one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s.

June 13, 1931 cover by Helen Hokinson.

When the film was released it was Norma Shearer who was the biggest name, supported by Lionel Barrymore and Leslie Howard. As this was “Pre-Code” Hollywood, MGM played up the film’s risqué themes of gangsters, drunks and infidelity. After all, according to this ad, Norma was “born in an age of FREEDOM!”

Although critic John Mosher — already weary of the gangster film genre — found the film pretentious, the public voted it one of the best films of 1931, and Barrymore took home an Oscar for his performance as a successful but conflicted (and alcoholic) attorney…

TRUST ME, HE WON’T BITE…Defense lawyer Stephen Ashe (Lionel Barrymore) introduces Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable), a bootlegger he successfully defends from a murder charge. Unfortunately, Ashe’s daughter Jan (Norma Shearer), who was betrothed to another (the squeaky-clean Dwight Winthrop, played by Leslie Howard), ends up falling for his shady client. (IMDB)
DECISIONS, DECISIONS…Jan Ashe (Norma Shearer) must decide between bad boy and goody two-shoes in 1931’s A Free Soul. Clark Gable and Leslie Howard would again play rivals for a woman’s affections eight years later in 1939’s Gone With The Wind. (IMDB)

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Speaking of Gangsters

A real one was profiled in the New Yorker by novelist and screenwriter Joel Sayre — Jack “Legs” Diamond — a thug who seemed to have nine lives but would be dead before the year was out (spoiler: he would not die from natural causes). An excerpt:

IN TROUBLE AGAIN?…Jack Diamond, aka “Legs Diamond” being escorted to the courthouse in Troy, New York in July 1931. (Everett)

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Some Real Guts

“The Talk of the Town” (via E.B. White) looked in on the work of famed aerial photographer Albert Stevens, who back in the day employed the common practice of chucking “flashlight bombs” out of airplanes to illuminate subjects below, including buildings along Riverside Drive that had their windows blown out during one of his aerial photo sessions…

Captains Albert Stevens (left, with the devil-may-care smile) and St. Clair Streett prepare for a high-altitude airplane flight in 1935. At right, Stevens readies his camera for an aerial photo session. (National Air and Space Museum).

Below is something similar to what Stevens dropped from the plane to get the effect he needed during nighttime shots…

Nighttime aerial photography owes its origins to pioneers like George Goddard, who stunned residents of Rochester, NY, in 1925 when he ignited an 80-pound flash bomb to illuminate the city (image at left). It is considered the first aerial night photograph. At right, Manhattan at night, 1931.

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Poetic Pugilist

Throughout his career and into his retirement, heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney took great pains to distinguish himself from the other brutes who practiced his violent trade, and was known for his love of the higher and gentler arts. In his “Notes and Comment” E. B. White further explored this phenomenon upon the boxer’s return to the States:

I’M NO PALOOKA…Gene Tunney chewing the fat with playwright George Bernard Shaw during a holiday in Brioni, 1929. (NYT)

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Not So Brief

I include this entire page to feature both Garrett Price’s cartoon (Judge Benjamin Barr Lindsey, a leader in abolishing child labor, supported the idea of unmarried couples living together, hence the caption), and Wolcott Gibbs’ thoughts on applying for an advertising position…

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And speaking of advertising, we have this summer-themed ad from Macy’s (yes, they had inflatables back then, too)…

…for reference, here’s a 1930s photo of actress Una Merkel astride an inflatable  horse like the one featured in the ad…

…R.J. Reynolds continued to market their Camel cigarettes to women, but the ads moved away from illustrations of Continental leisure and instead emphasized the freshness of the product, thanks to the cellophane-wrapped “Humidor pack”…

…while cigarette smoking continued to increase in America, the sale of alcohol remained illegal — it didn’t stop people from drinking, and if you got a bad batch of bootleg, or just had too much, there were remedies available…

…perhaps a fortunate few were able to just sleep it off on a lovely bed fitted with Wamsutta sheets…

…on to our cartoons, Rea Irvin continued to explore his alter ego, “Du Maurier Irvin”…

Alan Dunn showed us why some “can’t make it there” in New York, New York…

Otto Soglow revealed that his Little King preferred beer to bubbly…

William Steig found an unlikely customer for a photo button…

Barbara Shermund explored politics between the sheets…

…and Peter Arno gave us his Major with a major itch to scratch…

Next Time: Frozen at 30 Rock…

 

Flying the Friendly Skies

A few posts ago (the April 11 issue) I wrote about E.B. White’s love of flying, and how his (and the nation’s) exuberance for aviation suddenly came crashing down along with Knute Rockne’s plane in a Kansas wheat field.

May 23, 1931 cover by Garrett Price.

The death of the famed Notre Dame football coach had White pondering a new, safer path for aviation that seemed to be embodied in a contraption called the autogiro. White had previously written about the potential of the autogiro back in 1929 (Dec. 7 issue). Half-helicopter and half-airplane, it was considered not only safer, but easier to fly, possibly opening up the sky to everyday commuters.

PHOTO OP…A Pitcairn PCA-2 Autogiro paid a visit to the White House on April 22, 1931. President Herbert Hoover is second from left. (Library of Congress)

On a windy day White boarded the autogiro at an airport “in awful Queens” — most likely the current site of La Guardia — and filed this report for the “A Reporter at Large” column:

In the article, White referenced this Pitcairn Autogiro ad from the April 25, 1931 issue. No doubt the folks at Pitcairn had the Rockne accident in mind when they touted the safety of their craft, which seemed impossible to crash.

White wasn’t the only one enthused about the autogiro. It was the darling of modernist architects and futurists of 1920s and 30s, who saw the flying machine taking its place alongside the automobile in the house of the future.

SWEET…The Swiss-born architect and designer William Lescaze rendered this “House of the Future” in the late 1920s with a bullet-shaped motorcar in the carport and an autogiro perched on the roof. (From blog author’s collection)
COMMONPLACE, AT LEAST IN THE IMAGINATION…The autogiro appealed to the average Joe or Jill as well, featured in magazines such as the U.K.’s Practical Mechanics (June 1934) and Meccano Magazine (May 1931). At center, a Pitcairn ad from 1930. (vtol.org)
WELL, IT WORKED…This two-seat AC-35 Autogiro (left) was developed for a Department of Commerce competition to create an “Aerial Model T.” James G. Ray, vice president and chief pilot of the Autogiro Company of America, landed the AC-35 in a small downtown park in Washington. D.C. on Oct. 2, 1936; at right, a still image from a 1936 film, Things to Come, which showed people of the year 2036 getting around in autogiros while wearing groovy futuristic togas. (Smithsonian/gutenberg.net.au)

Prompted by a New York Times editorial, White pondered the day when the air would be thick with personal aircraft:

AND THEY LAND WHERE?…The idea of city skies filled with flying commuters is nothing new, as this 1911 illustration by Richard Rummell from King’s Views of New York attests. (The Guardian)

White offered still more observations on aviation safety in his “Notes and Comment” column…

…and in the same column he also pondered the future in terms of his infant son, Joel White:

Sadly, Joel didn’t quite make it to the turn of the century — he died in 1997. He did, however, have a successful life as a noted naval architect and founder of the Brooklin Boat Yard in Brooklin, Maine.

ON GOLDEN POND…Joel White took to the water at a very young age, seen at left rowing a boat in an image from a home movie by E.B. and Katharine White; at right, Joel in his design office at the Brooklin Boat Yard, which he founded in 1960. (E.B. White Collection, Northeast Historic Film/Billy Black)

One more from E.B. White, this the lead item for his column which made jest of a debate at Yale over dropping the requirement for Latin. It says something to the effect that “Yale’s lead on the issue frees the rest of us to follow our fiduciary duty, toss tradition into the fire, and focus on practical matters such as traffic studies.” Latin students, please forgive me, and if someone can offer a better interpretation, please let me know.

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From Our Advertisers

The makers of Dawn “Ring-Lit” cigarettes seemed to have a winner on their hands with a smoke you could light like a match, but I can’t find any record of the company. Most likely this was a local brand sold at nightclubs, restaurants and hotels, and not through retail…

…Murad, on the other hand, was widely available, but the brand faded as tastes moved away from Turkish-style cigarettes…Rea Irvin illustrated a long series of ads for the brand, presenting various “embarrassing moments,” including this familiar trope involving office hijinx…

…summer was on the way, and the makers of Jantzen swimwear were establishing their brand as both the choice for athletes as well as the fashion-conscious…

…and you might have packed a Jantzen or two for this around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain, arranged through Canadian Pacific. Your fare, if you wanted an “apartment with a bath,” would set you back $3,950, or a cool $63,000 in today’s currency…

…if the cruise was too rich for your budget, perhaps you could put your money toward a durable good like a GE all-steel refrigerator. Note how GE contrasted its product with the overly complicated gadgets demonstrated on stage by popular vaudeville comedian Joe Cook

…on to the cartoons, William Steig gave us a glimpse of the important work taking place behind an exec’s closed doors…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on a couple’s travel plans…

Wallace Morgan took us on a trot through Central Park…

Perry Barlow probed labor relations in an estate garden (and a caption with the New Yorker’s signature diaeresis on the word “coöperation”)

…and Carl Kindl gave a look into the latest maneuvers in the canned soup wars…

…and we end our May 23 cartoons on a sad note, with Ralph Barton’s final contribution to the New Yorker, a “Hero of the Week” illustration featuring the Prince of Wales:

On May 19, 1931, Ralph Waldo Emerson Barton, who suffered from severe manic-depression, shot himself through the right temple in his East Midtown Manhattan penthouse. He was 39 years old.

From the outside one would have thought Barton had a wonderful life as a successful artist who lived in style, who spent long vacations relaxing in France, and who hobnobbed with celebrities such as his close friend Charlie Chaplin.

To lose a longtime contributor and friend must have been a real blow to the staff at the New Yorker. Barton had been there from the beginning, his name appearing on the magazine’s first masthead as an advisory editor:

He was a prominent contributor to the magazine, from recurring features like his weekly take on the news — “The Graphic Section” — to theatrical caricatures that included clever caption-length reviews. He was married four times in his short life, most notably to actress Carlotta Monterey, his third (he was also her third marriage). She divorced Barton in 1926 and married playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1929.

In his suicide note, Barton wrote that he had irrevocably lost the only woman he ever loved, referring to Carlotta. But some speculate this claim was a final dramatic flourish, and that the end came because he feared he was on the verge of total insanity. He also wrote in the note: “I have had few difficulties, many friends, great successes; I have gone from wife to wife and house to house, visited great countries of the world—but I am fed up with inventing devices to fill up twenty-four hours of the day.”

A CHARMED, TROUBLED LIFE…Clockwise, from top left, Ralph Barton with the love of his life, his third wife, actress Carlotta Monterey; Barton with best friend Charlie Chaplin, photographed by Nickolas Muray in 1927; after leaving Barton, Monterey would marry playwright Eugene O’Neill, who in a weird coincidence would become Chaplin’s father-in-law in 1943; a 1922 portrait of Carlotta by Barton; and a self-portrait from 1925, in the style of El Greco. “The human soul would be a hideous object if it were possible to lay it bare,” Barton wrote in 1926. (illustrationart.com/Pinterest/MCNY/curiator.com/npg.si.edu)

The following issue of the New Yorker (May 30, 1931)…

May 30, 1931 cover by Barney Tobey.

…featured this brief obituary on the bottom of page 28. I like this observation from the last line…his work had the rare and discomforting tingle of genius.

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The Gray & The Blue

We are reminded of the span of time and history that separate us from 1931 with this small item in “The Talk of the Town” that notes “fewer than a hundred” Civil War veterans were still alive in New York City. We just marked the 76th anniversary of D-Day, an event still 13 years into the future for this New Yorker writer:

OLD WARRIORS…Union Civil War veterans stand in front a monument at Gettysburg, July 12, 1931. (National Geographic)

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From Our Advertisers

American brewers could sense the tide was turning on Prohibition laws, among them Augustus Busch, who took out a full page ad featuring “An Open Letter to the American People” that suggested a return to beer brewing would help relieve the unemployment situation caused by the Depression — note how the ad featured a variety of non-alcoholic products, but put the alcoholic beer at the head of the line…

…Walking east on 24th Street past Chelsea’s London Terrace and on to Madison Square Park is one of my favorite strolls in Manhattan…there is something almost cozy about walking by this massive building, once the largest apartment house in the world…Electrolux found it impressive enough to pair with their latest model refrigerator…

…a photo of London Terrace I took in December…

…on to our cartoons, we begin with Otto Soglow’s Little King…

Richard Decker gave us another familiar comic trope, the postman and the housewife…

Helen Hokinson eavesdropped on some small talk…

Garrett Price explored the joys of parenthood…

…I’m surprised this got by Harold Ross, who could be a bit of a prude…we close with Peter Arno’s unique take on family life…

Next Time: Rooftop Romance…

Front Page News

It’s hard to beat Chicago as a source for hardboiled storytelling, and two of its best newspaper reporters, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, would draw on their rough and tumble newsroom experiences to create one of Broadway’s most-beloved plays.

March 28, 1931 cover by Ruth Cairns.

Although they were Chicago boys, the New Yorker crowd viewed Hecht and MacArthur as adopted (or perhaps naturalized) Manhattanites. So when John Mosher wrote his glowing review of the film adaption of The Front Page, he was writing about the work of a pair well known to the Algonquin Round Table set.

WE ❤ NY…Chicagoans Ben Hecht, left, and Charles MacArthur were familiar faces with the Algonquin Round Table crowd. (Chicago Tribune/Amazon)
NEWSIES…Editor Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou) sizes up his reporter Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Hildy’s fiance Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) in The Front Page. (IMDB)

MacArthur (1895-1956) was especially close to the Algonquin group, having shared an apartment with Robert Benchley and a bed with Dorothy Parker in the early 1920s. In 1928 MacArthur would marry one of Broadway’s most beloved stars, Helen Hayes.

For his part, Hecht (1893-1964) contributed short fiction pieces to the New Yorker during its lean first years, 1925-1928. After the success of The Front Page, Hecht would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters.

Here’s Mosher’s review:

Playwright and essayist James Harvey observes that The Front Page was “Hecht and MacArthur’s Chicago…(and) that counts most deeply in the imagination of Hollywood. And their play, the first of the great newspaper comedies, did more to define the tone and style, the look and the sound of Hollywood comedy than any other work of its time.”

DESK JOB…Hildy Johnson (Pat O’Brien) and Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke) hide escaped murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone) in a rolltop desk in 1931’s The Front Page. (Everett)
TRIUMPHANT TRIUMVIRATE… Following up on the success of his famously over-budget war film Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes (left) had another hit on his hands as co-producer of The Front Page; at the Fourth Academy Awards the film was nominated for Best Picture, Lewis Milestone (center) for Best Director, and Adolphe Menjou (right) for Best Actor. (Wikipedia/IMDB)

A footnote: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were close throughout their careers, and remain so even in death: they are buried near each other on a hilltop in Oak Hills Cemetery, Nyack, NY.

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From Our Advertisers

In the late 1920s and early 1930s several illustrators drew inspiration from the style Carl “Eric” Erickson made famous with his elegant series of ads for Camel cigarettes…I’m not sure if this ad (part of a series promoting “The New Chevrolet Six”) is by Erickson or an imitator, but it seems the artists were likely inspired by the actress Greta Garbo and her signature beret…

…and for comparison, an Erickson Camel ad from the March 21, 1931 issue…

…and our inspiration, Greta Garbo circa 1930…

…those Chevy buyers might have considered investing in Velmo mohair upholstery to boost the resale value of their auto…

…among other technological wonders of the age — furniture crafted from aluminum, soon to become ubiquitous in workplaces across the country…

…and then there was the electric refrigerator, still new to a lot of households in 1931 as icemen began to hang up their tongs and head for the sunset…

…if you were a modern man or woman of means, you could ditch the auto altogether and get yourself a Pitcairn autogiro…

…in the 1920s and 30s the autogiro was considered by many to be the transportation of the future, a flying machine as easy to operate as driving a car…

HEY DAD, CAN I HAVE THE KEYS TO THE AUTOGIRO?…Above, a Pitcairn PCA-2. In the 1920s and 30s, many future-forward designers imagined the autogiro as the flying car of tomorrow. (Wikipedia)

…for those who preferred to be passenger rather than pilot, they could relax in the comfort of an airplane cabin and enjoy some…hmmm…beef broth! From what I understand, passenger flight was not this cosy in 1931…this was long before pressurized cabins, when you had to mostly fly in the weather, and not above it, and you probably had to fight to keep from upchucking that Torex all over the lovely flight attendant…

…while we are on the subject of flight, we turn to our cartoons, beginning with Garrett Price

…meanwhile, William Steig explored the trials of young love…

…a rare two-pager from Ralph Barton

Leonard Dove adopted an alias for a cartoon that seems inspired by a recent trip to Persia…

Otto Soglow illustrated one man’s dilemma at a bus stop…

Gardner Rea found offense in an unlikely setting…

Barbara Shermund defined pathetic in this sugar daddy’s boast…

…while on the other end of the spectrum, I. Klein illustrated the burdens of life as a Milquetoast…

…and we sign off with Mary Petty, and one woman’s terms of endearment…

Next Time: Last Stand for Beau James…

Wickersham Sham

Introduce the topic of the Wickersham Commission at your next dinner party and you will most likely be answered with a puzzled silence.

January 31, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

However, in January 1931 it was THE topic of the month, especially among New Yorkers keen to see the end of Prohibition, which was the focus of the commission.

Established by President Herbert Hoover, the 11-member Wickersham Commission (officially, the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) was not seeking to repeal the 18th Amendment, but rather to examine the criminal justice system under Prohibition, everything from police brutality and graft to the rapid rise of organized crime.

SOBER UNDERTAKING…George Wickersham was featured on Time’s Feb. 2, 1931 cover for his leadership on the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, better known as the Wickersham Commission. (Time)

To the chagrin of many New Yorkers, the report (released on Jan. 7, 1931) called for even more aggressive enforcement of anti-alcohol laws.

This caused such a stir that the New Yorker dedicated the entire first page of “The Talk of the Town” to a satirical commentary furnished by E.B. White. An excerpt:

LEAVE MY NAME OUT OF IT…Former US Attorney General George Woodward Wickersham, left, was tapped by President Herbert Hoover to lead the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement. Humorist Will Rogers weighed in on the likely outcome of the Commission’s report. (Wikipedia/PBS)

Humorist Will Rogers also commented on the report in this letter published on page 19 of the Jan. 26, 1931 edition of The New York Times…

…Algonquin Round Table co-founder Franklin P. Adams, on the other hand, summed up the Commission’s report with a poem:

Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.
We like it.
It’s left a trail of graft and slime
It don’t prohibit worth a dime
It’s filled our land with vice and crime,
Nevertheless, we’re for it.

Back to the New Yorker, Howard Brubaker weighed in with his column, “Of All Things,” correctly noting that the majority of Americans wanted an end to Prohibition laws despite the Commission’s recommendations…

…and Rea Irvin gauged the mood of the parlor crowd in light of the report:

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Polar Plunge

On to happier news, “The Talk of the Town” looked in on preparations for a North Pole trip by a refitted and renamed military submarine, Nautilus. An excerpt:

POLAR OBSESSED…Above, the Nautilus arrives at Plymouth, England, on June 26, 1931. It left New York City on June 4 on the first leg of a voyage that was to continue on to Spitsbergen, Norway and ultimately to the North Pole and a rendezvous with Germany’s Graf Zeppelin. At right, crew members Cornelius P. Royster, John R. Janson, and Harry Zoeller dine in the Nautilus galley, April 20, 1931. (amphilsoc.org)
HOW IT WORKED…The June 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics asked the question, “Will the Nautilus Freeze Under the North Pole?” Stay tuned. (Modern Mechanix)

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Dorothy, Abridged

Laid up with the flu, Dorothy Parker turned to some reading during her convalescence, only to find that the books provided to her (for review) were far from uplifting. One in particular, a censored version of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, was downright galling. Excerpts:

FIFTY SHADES OF EMBARRASSMENT…D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published privately in 1928 and swiftly banned by the United States the following year. Amazingly, the first unexpurgated edition would not be published in the U.S. until 1959, in the edition pictured above issued by the fledgling Grove Press. (mhpbooks.com/orbooks.com)

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Old Before Her Time

Lois Long was only 29 years old when she wrote her “Doldrums” series for the New Yorker, but the chronicler of Jazz Age nightlife who once epitomized the flapper lifestyle felt much older given how much the world had changed in just a few short years. She was particularly appalled by the younger generation’s embrace of “health and vitality” over her own generation’s lust for the party life…

GETTING THEIR KICKS…Lois Long was appalled by the new generation’s healthier pursuits, left, contrasted with the flapper lifestyle Long embodied in the 1920s. (Pinterest)

…Long was mother to a toddler at the time, and would divorce husband and New Yorker colleague Peter Arno in the spring. This, no doubt, contributed to her feeling of estrangement from the younger generation:

Endnote: Bernarr MacFadden (1868-1955), referred to above, was an early proponent of body building and healthy diets that anticipated the rise of physical culture icons such as Charles Atlas and Jack LaLanne.

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The Last Warrior

Paris correspondent Janet Flanner noted the passing of 78-year-old French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre, the last of the great World War I military leaders. Note that Flanner referred to Joffre’s war as “the world war,” since the next world war was still on the horizon.

AU REVOIR…French Field Marshal Joseph Joffre (saluting) in 1922. (Library of Congress)

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From Our Advertisers

We have two of New York’s finest hotels advertised along with the newly opened National Hotel in Havana, Cuba. All three were under the same management at the time. The Cuban hotel would be heavily damaged two years later in a coup led by Fulgencio Batista. It would be restored, and eventually nationalized by Fidel Castro. The Savoy-Plaza would not be so lucky, demolished in 1965 to make way for the General Motors Building…

NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T…The elegant Savoy-Plaza (left) was razed in 1965 to make way for the General Motors Building. (Wikipedia)

…and we have this lovely color ad from the makers of Alcoa aluminum chairs, which bespoke “the new vogue.” Alcoa created the market for aluminum furniture in the 1920s in an effort to increase demand for its aluminum products. It obviously worked, as all kinds of aluminum chairs and desks became ubiquitous by mid-century, especially in the workplace…

…on to our cartoonists…the Jan. 31, 1931 issue marked a big moment in New Yorker cartoons, as it featured James Thurber’s very first…

Alan Dunn showed us a man who could not be distracted from financial woes…

William Steig settled in as a New Yorker regular…

Carl Rose gave us a lot of sour faces in a bank lobby…

…and Gluyas Williams demonstrated the effects of decaf coffee…

…and before I go, here is a scene from the Third Academy Awards, which are referred to as the 1931 awards, although they were actually held on Nov. 5, 1930 in the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles….

(oscars.com)

Next Time: And the Winner Is…

 

 

 

 

Rise of the Gangster Film

During the early years of the Depression and before censorship guidelines were imposed by the Hays Code, Hollywood cranked out a slew of “Pre-Code” films filled with sex and violence, including 1931’s Little Caesar, the first “talkie” gangster film that defined the genre for decades to come.

Jan. 17, 1931 cover by Peter Arno.

Requiem For the Flapper

The Vassar-educated Lois Long was an icon of the flapper generation and a reigning voice — witty and smart — of New York nightlife in the Roaring Twenties.

Jan. 10, 1931 cover by Constantin Alajalov.

In one of her early “Tables for Two” columns, the famously hard-partying Long made this request of her New Yorker readers: “Will someone do me a favor a get me home by eleven sometime? And see that nobody gives a party while I am catching up? I do so hate to miss anything.”

DONT START THE PARTY WITHOUT ME…Carefree days at your neighborhood speakeasy. (Manchester’s Finest)

By the dawn of 1931 few were in the mood for a party, including the 29-year-old Long, who was mother to a toddler and would soon divorce husband and New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno.

But it wasn’t motherhood or a tempestuous marriage that soured Long on the party scene. Rather, blame fell to the whiny, self-absorbed crowd that had displaced her fun-loving Jazz Age revelers. In the Jan. 10, 1931 issue Long began to assess the decade ahead in a six-part series titled “Doldrums.” The first installment, “Bed of Neuroses,” suggests Long missed the joie de vivre that characterized the previous decade:

“It is all so discouraging; so very, very, sad. Six million people in New York, and apparently no one in the white-collar class who can lose himself for a moment in the ecstasy of a roller-coaster. Six million people in New York, and every one of them a curious little study in maladjustment. Thousands of young men who own dinner jackets, and I am always drawing someone who makes scenes in public because he once had a little cat that died and he has never got over it.”

With that, Long’s partying days were officially over. Some excerpts from “Bed of Neuroses”…

SALAD DAYS…Clockwise, from top left, Lois Long relaxing on the beach in a image captured from a 1920s home movie; silent film star Charlie Chaplin, Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield, sculptor Helen Sardeau, Lois Long and screenwriter Harry D’Arrast pose in a Coney Island photo booth, 1925; Long with husband Peter Arno and daughter Patricia, 1929; Long at the office in a classic flapper pose, circa 1925. (PBS/Joshua Zeitz/Patricia Long/Wikipedia)

Long recalled the days when one could hold his or her liquor…

There has been a trend among the bright young drinkers toward a glass of sherry before meals instead of cocktails, a bottle of wine during dinner, port with the cheese, a liqueur with the coffee — instead of one highball after another.

…and when one’s personal hang-ups remained personal, and were not subject to tedious public display:

Long’s nightlife column, “Tables for Two” folded a few months after the 1929 stock market crash, but she would continue to make unsigned contributions to the “Comments” and “The Talk of the Town” sections into the 1950s. Her main focus at the magazine, however, would be her fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue,” which she would write until 1968. Upon her death in 1974, New Yorker editor William Shawn remarked that Long “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.”

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The Age of Giants

Architecture critic George S. Chappell took in the grandeur of the nearly completed Empire State Building, which rose from the rubble of the old Waldorf-Astoria hotel and perhaps more than any building served as a giant exclamation point for the 20th century metropolis. Chappell did not buy developers’ claims regarding the building’s “mooring mast,” calling it a “silly gesture” that the building would have been better served without. Looking back from our time, however, it is hard to imagine the building without its distinctive spire:

DIZZY HEIGHTS…Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building stood as the world’s tallest until 1970. Clockwise, from top left, New Yorker critic George Chappell viewed the “mooring mast” as a publicity stunt, and believed the building would have been better without it; interior of the building at its grand opening in May 1931; ground-level view of the setbacks Chappell admired; the completed tower in 1931. (lajulak.org/AP/Acme/Pinterest)

Chappell also made note of a neo-Georgian style building designed by Joseph Freedlander for the Museum of the City of New York:

HISTORY’S HOME…The main facade of the Museum of the City of New York facing Fifth Avenue. (Wikipedia)

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Ignoble Deeds

“The Talk of the Town” looked in on some aging veterans of the 19th century “Indian Wars” and found the old coots reminiscing about the massacre of various North American tribes…

NO HARD FEELINGS?…Crow warrior White Man Runs Him poses with 82-year-old Gen. Edward Settle Godfrey, a survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn, at the 50th Anniversary of the battle in 1926. (Wikipedia)

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Cheeky

E.B. White assumed the nom de plume “Eustace Tilley” to answer an earnest query letter from Leslie Fulenwider of Famous Features Syndicate. Fulenwider probably didn’t know what he was in for…

ALTER EGO…E.B. White periodically assumed the role of New Yorker mascot Eustace Tilley in handling magazine correspondence.

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Too Cool for School

In his weekly art gallery column, Murdock Pemberton noted the New Year’s Day opening of the New School for Social Research in a “timid landmark” designed by Joseph Urban of theatrical design fame. The school’s boardroom featured a series of murals by realist painter Thomas Hart Benton.

NEW LOOK FOR NEW SCHOOL…Joseph Urban’s interpretation of the International Style for the New School for Social Research at 66 West 12th Street.
AMERICAN TABLEAU…Three panels from Thomas Hart Benton’s ten-panel mural, America Today. Originally installed in the New School’s boardroom, it is now housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (charlesmcquillen.com) click image to enlarge

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From Our Advertisers

“If you’re to be among this season’s southbound fortunates,” as this ad begins, you’ll want to check out these Bradley bathing suits designed for a variety of privileged personalities…

…but before you hit the beach, you might consider an “Ardena Bath”  to take away some of that winter fat…

…this 1932 illustration (below) demonstrates how a full-body, Ardena paraffin wax bath works. An Elizabeth Arden advertisement described the procedure thus: You step into a tub lined with waxed paper. Over you they pour a warm liquid paraffin which slowly hardens until you are encased in a paraffin shell. Your face becomes pink. You are permeated in a sense of well-being. Suddenly, the perspirations bursts from you, for the shell forms a vacuum which causes the pores to open and, consequently, impurities are drawn away…

…on to our cartoons, we have two from William Steig, who produced 2,600 drawings and 117 covers for the New Yorker and whose work would span two centuries, delighting both adults and children alike, most notably the picture book Shrek! that would lead to a hugely successful movie series. According to The Numbers: Where Data and the Movie Business Meet, “after the release of Shrek 2 in 2004, Steig became the first sole-creator of an animated movie franchise that went on to generate over $1 billion from theatrical and ancillary markets after only one sequel.”

Here is Steig’s first New Yorker cartoon, from the Aug. 9, 1930 issue:

…and back to the Jan. 10, 1931 issue, in which Steig offered these glimpses into city life (note how his style had become more refined since that first cartoon)…

…and then have a look into the posh set from New Yorker stalwart Helen Hokinson

…some bedside manner with Leonard Dove

Peter Arno continued to explore the complexities of love…

…and Gardner Rea showed us the softer side of a hardened criminal…

…and before we close I want to bring to your attention to this wonderful New Yorker parody that Peter Binkley recently shared with me. Binkley writes that the Dec. 20, 1930 cover “was the model for a parody issue that friends of my grandparents in the Village made for them when they visited for the holidays. My grandparents had lived in New York for a couple of years but moved away in 1929. They and this group of friends lived in the same building on Morton St., and were fervent New Yorker readers. The parody is interesting, I think, for giving a glimpse of what New Yorker fans below the top-hat-wearing class enjoyed about it at the time.”

Below, left, is the cover of the Dec. 30 issue by Constantin Alajalov, and next to it the terrific parody cover.

…and a couple of the interior pages, with parodies of cartoons by Peter Arno and John Held Jr….

You can check out the full parody issue here.

Next Time: Rise of the Gangster Film…