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…