Bad Hootch

Despite Prohibition, perhaps a few champagne corks were popped for the January 15, 1927, edition of the New Yorker. This is Issue # 100.

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January 15, 1927–Issue # 100. The cover art by Constantin Alajalov.

Prohibition was on the minds of the editors of the issue, which featured a highly critical piece by Morris Markey (“A Reporter at Large”) on the hysteria surrounding the government’s attempt to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol. The editors of “The Talk of the Town” also made this observation:

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Before we get more into Markey’s piece, a little background is in order. In an article for Time magazine (Jan. 14, 2015) Lily Rothman writes that for years prior to Prohibition industrial alcohol had been “denatured” by adding toxic or unappetizing chemicals to it. This was done so folks couldn’t escape beverage taxes by drinking commercial-use alcohol instead — but it was still possible to re-purify the liquid so that it could be consumed.

HOME CHEMISTRY…A bootlegger at work in the 1920s. (oldmagazinearticles.com)

Rothman cites a Time article from Jan. 10, 1927, which reported that Prohibition forces in the government were introducing a new formula that year for denaturing industrial-grade alcohol that doubled the poisonous content: “4 parts methanol (wood alcohol), 2.25 parts pyridine bases, 0.5 parts benzene to 100 parts ethyl alcohol.” The article noted that “Three ordinary drinks of this may cause blindness.”

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Warning label from the 1920s (vickyloebel.com)

Although some opposed the practice as legalized murder, Rothman cites Seymour M. Lowman, who as Assistant Secretary of the Treasury (1927-33) was in charge of Prohibition enforcement. Lowman told citizens that those on the fringes of society who continued to drink were “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if the result was a sober America, “a good job will have been done.”

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DRINK AT YOUR OWN RISK…1920s label for bootleg moonshine. (googleuk)

Thousands died from consuming poisoned alcohol. Rothman writes that 33 people died in Manhattan alone in a three-day period in 1928, mostly from drinking wood alcohol.

Markey’s stance in his New Yorker article is somewhat unique, if not cold-hearted. Instead of taking the government to task for the practice, he assured his well-heeled readers that they had nothing to fear as long as they procured their alcohol from reputable bootleggers at top prices. Markey seemed to care not at all for the poor “slum-dwellers” who died from consuming the cheap stuff:

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If anything, Markey’s sympathies seemed to lie with those who had to drink the safe, albeit diluted hootch. He explained how four bottles of bootleg Scotch could be fashioned from a single bottle of the real deal:

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And if you had money, there was no need to fear death from drink…

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…that is, unless you were careless:

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* * *

Helena Huntington Smith wrote a profile on the actor Adolphe Menjou, described by IMDB as Hollywood’s epitome of suave and debonair style: “Known for his knavish, continental charm and sartorial opulence, Menjou, complete with trademark waxy black mustache, evolved into one of Hollywood’s most distinguished of artists and fashion plates, a tailor-made scene-stealer.” Interestingly, Menjou was born in Pittsburgh, and not in France as many a fan assumed (his father, however, was a French émigré).

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Glass lantern advertising slide for Menjou’s 1927 silent film A Gentleman of Paris.

In other items, New Yorker architecture critic George S. Chappell (aka T-Square) once again set his sights on the city’s changing skyline. He began with the new General Motors building at Columbus Circle:

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He was thrilled by the push-button automation of the building’s elevators:

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The General Motors building, left, as it originally appeared on Columbus Circle. It was designed by Shreve & Lamb, who would soon go on to design the Empire State Building. At right, the building became known as the Newsweek Building. (Drawing by J. W. Golinkin in Towers of Manhattan, 1928, and photo by David W. Dunlap/The New York Times)

If George Chappell thought the General Motors building had some issues in 1927, he should see it today, wrapped in tacky reflecting glass and renamed 3 Columbus Circle:

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WHY? WHY ON EARTH?

Elsewhere, Chappell was agog at Sloan & Robertson’s massive Graybar Building:

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Sloan & Robertson’s Graybar Building at 420 Lexington. (history.graybar.com)

And to close, this ad on the back page for Chesterfield cigarettes, featuring the company’s famous Atlantic City sign. Note the point of pride: There are 13,000 lamps in the sign, but four times that many Chesterfields are smoked every minute…koff…koff…

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Next Time…Upstairs, Downstairs…

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A Fine Mess

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Feb. 27 cover, H.O. Hofman

The month of February 1926 must have been miserable in New York City. A massive blizzard made a mess of the streets, which were then topped by a soot-laden smog. The smog was the result of homes and businesses burning soft coal, which produced far more smoke than the hard variety (which was in short supply).

The photo above, from the Daily News archive, shows a chaotic scene on Orchard Street (Manhattan’s Lower East Side) after the storm.

As could be expected, The New Yorker editors tried their best to make light of the situation, although they couldn’t resist making a racist remark regarding the effects of soot on the population. It is also interesting to note that the word “smoggy” was considered by the editors to be a relatively new term:

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Al Frueh showed us how the toffs dealt with the situation…

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…and Fifth Avenue was not the best place for a fashionable stroll…

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Shovelers were hired to clear the streets after 1926 blizzard (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

No doubt the foul weather contributed to the mood of the writers and critics at The New Yorker, who reacted rather sourly to the much ballyhooed Feb. 17, 1926 debut of young Marion Talley at the Metropolitan Opera. At the tender age of 19, she was the youngest prima donna to sing at the Metropolitan Opera at that time.

In his “A Reporter at Large” column, Morris Markey scoffed at the hype and small-town boosterism that accompanied the young singer from rural Missouri:

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Talley’s debut performance was as Gilda, the daughter of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto. The Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, hoped Talley’s debut would be low-key and not overshadow the production. However, a delegation of two hundred leading citizens of Kansas City, including the mayor, arrived via a special train for the event.

Adding to the chaos, a noisy telegraph machine was set up backstage so Talley’s father could send dispatches to the Associated Press.

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OVER EXPOSED: Marion Talley in 1926. (Library of Congress)

Talley’s swift rise to fame would be followed by a relatively quick return to obscurity. After appearing in seven productions at the Met, her contract was not renewed for the 1929 season.

Next Time: Life of a Rum Runner…

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