Crop of illustration from Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair–and I Bob Mine!

In 1920, 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald was flying high. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, the story of a Princeton student who’s a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in March. Reviews were glowing* and sales were strong.

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

He married Zelda in April.**

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920 (Library of Congress)

The real money was in short stories, and his were starting to sell.*** “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the May 1 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

Saturday Evening Post cover, Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920, man and woman at Ouija board.

Norman Rockwell

Meanwhile, back in 2020, my hair was getting long. Not this long,

Shampoo ad showing woman with long red hair, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1920

but long.

Mary Grace McGeehan with long hair, May 2020.

It could be months before the salons opened in D.C. Something had to be done.

Hey, I thought, how about a bob of my own to celebrate Bernice’s centennial? I had read the story in college and vaguely recalled it as the jolly tale of a popular young woman who gets her hair bobbed to the shock of all around her, but then all her friends decide she looks fantastic and they all go dance a celebratory Charleston.**** Or something along those lines.

Headline, Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

The real story turned out to be nothing like that at all.***** Here’s what really happens.

Bernice, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is visiting her aunt and cousin Marjorie, who live in an unnamed city that that could be Fitzgerald’s home town of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bernice is attractive enough, but she’s a total buzz-kill. No one ever cuts in on her at dances. (She’s more popular in Eau Claire, but it hasn’t dawned on her that this might have something to do with her father being the richest man in town.) Warren, who’s miserably in love with Marjorie, has the misfortune of sitting with Bernice on the veranda at intermission at a country club dance. “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist,” Fitzgerald writes.

“She’s absolutely hopeless,” Marjorie complains to her mother one night. “I think it’s that crazy Indian blood in Bernice. Maybe she’s a reversion to type. Indian women all just sat round and never said anything.”

Marjorie’s mom calls her “idiotic,” more fondly than you should when your daughter’s being racist.

Bernice, you will not be surprised to hear (especially if you looked at the picture), has been standing behind the door the whole time. The next day at breakfast, she tells Marjorie that she heard everything. If that’s the way things are, she says, she might as well go back to Eau Claire. Marjorie is not as horrified by this concept as Bernice had expected, so she goes off and cries for a while.

Then she goes to confront Marjorie. She has barely gotten three words into her little lecture on kindness when Marjorie cuts her off, saying, in essence, “Cut the Little Women crap.” Bernice ponders this while Marjorie’s off at a matinee and when Marjorie returns she proposes a new plan: she’ll stay, and Marjorie will give her popularity lessons. Marjorie agrees—IF Bernice promises to do every single thing she tells her to. Deal, says Bernice.

Pillsbury ad, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

The Eliza Dootlittle-ing of Bernice begins. There’s some eyebrow-tending and remedial dancing, but most of the focus is on repartee. A few days later, Bernice tries out her new line at a country club dance. “Do you think I ought to bob my hair, Mr. Charley Paulson?” she asks. “I want to be a society vampire, you see.” Mr. Charley Paulson has nothing useful to say on this subject, but Bernice announces that the bobbing is on. Servier Barber Shop. The whole gang’s invited.

Glidden ad, men on scaffolding, Satruday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

Of course she’s not really going to have her hair bobbed. Short hair on women is considered immoral in respectable circles in 1920 (or 1919, if you allow for publication lead times). It’s just a line. But it works! The new Bernice and her inane babble are the toast of the town. As the weeks go by, she compiles an impressive list of admirers. Including—uh oh!—Warren. Remember him? Marjorie’s admirer who got stuck with Bernice on the veranda? Marjorie, who is not as indifferent to Warren as she lets on, is NOT amused.

At a bridge party, Marjorie confronts Bernice. “Splush!” she says. The hair bobbing business is just a line—admit it! Bernice is out of her league here, and next thing she knows the gang is at Servier Barber Shop. “My hair—bob it!” she says to the nearest barber.

Bernice at barber shop, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And the barber does. Or, rather, he hacks it off. And…disaster! It turns out that Bernice’s lustrous brown locks were a major element of her attractiveness. Now, with her hair hanging in lank lifeless blocks, she looks, she thinks, “ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.” Warren and the other guys are instantly over her.

But Bernice has more spirit than we’ve given her credit for. That night, as Marjorie lies sleeping, her blond hair in braids, Bernice steals into her room and picks up a pair of shears. Snip snip, good-bye golden locks! As Marjorie sleeps on, Bernice heads out for the train station, braids in hand, and flings them into Warren’s front yard.

“Ha!” she giggled wildly. “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Then picking up her suitcase she set off at a half run down the moonlit street.

Hartford Fire Insurance ad, red wolf, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

All of this left me cheering for Bernice but second-guessing my choice of her as a tonsorial role model. The barber at Servier might not have been a bobbing expert, but at least he was a hair-cutting professional. Maybe I should leave well enough alone. Hardly anyone ever sees my hair these days, and when they do it’s tied up under a mask.

Mary Grace McGeehan outdoors in mask, May 2020.

But I have to look at my hair constantly, what with all the hand-washing while reciting 20-second snippets of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I can’t take it anymore, I decide. Steeling my courage, I set a towel on the floor, wet my hair, and prop up my iPad to use  as a mirror.

Towel around my head, I tell myself it’s not too late. I can still back down. But Marjorie’s mocking voice says in my head, as it said in Bernice’s, “Give up and get down. You tried to buck me and I called your bluff.”

Mary Grace McGeehan, head in towel, May 2020.

Am I going to take that from a twit like Marjorie? No, I’m not! I lift the scissors****** to my head and start to snip.

Mary Grace McGeehan cutting hair, May 1920.

Halfway through, no turning back now. I smile bravely.

Mary Grace McGeehan halfway through haircut, May 1920.

Finished!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut, May 2020.

I show myself the back, like a real hairdresser. A little crooked, but not too bad considering the awkward angle and lack of visibility.

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut from back, May 1920.

But the blow-dry is the true test. Which will it be? Limp, lifeless blocks, or chic new do?

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut horror, May 2020.

Just kidding. That’s Bernice. I love it!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut thumbs-up, May 2020.

When the decade changed, a few friends asked me if I was excited to be moving into the 1920s. The answer was no, not really. Everyone knows about the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. The 1910s felt more mine, somehow. But, as I read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in its original setting, with the illustrations and the ads and this photo stuck under the end of the story,

Photograph of house in country, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

I felt like I was discovering Fitzgerald–not the canonic writer everyone reads in high school, not the man who knew so much disappointment and misery in his short life, but an ambitious and promising young man who brilliantly skewers the young people in his privileged social circle but rises above satire because he loves them too. I’m in at the beginning of something exciting and important, and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.

Stay safe, everyone, and don’t fear the scissors!

squiggle

*Here’s the opening of the New Republic review:

New Republic review, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, May 12, 1920.

The New Republic, May 12, 1920

**The timing was not a coincidence. The sale of This Side of Paradise sealed the deal on the engagement.

***Fitzgerald’s first published short story, “Babes in the Woods,” appeared in The Smart Set in September 1919. Summary: popular boy and a popular girl meet at a party. Will they kiss?

Smart Set cover, September 1919, woman in hat.

****Yes, I know, the Charleston wasn’t actually a thing until 1923.

*****In my defense, college was quite a while ago.

******Presciently ordered way back in March.

Magazine ads take baby steps into the 1920s

When a new decade begins, there’s usually a period when people have a sense that it will be different from the last one, but they don’t yet know how. (Okay, this decade is a bad example.) Having spent my Easter morning looking through ads from the Ladies’ Home Journal from January to April 1920, I’ve caught glimpses of the 1910s dying and the 1920s being born.

I imagine that this woman’s flowing locks will disappear soon,

Shampoo ad showing woman with long red hair, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

to be replaced by something along these lines:*

Snowdrift shortening ad, woman eating shortening, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Dance parties like this are so 1916;

Soap advertisement, woman and man dancing, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

this proto-Charleston is more like it.

Colombia gramophone ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920, man and woman dancing.

Will a corset stand it?

Corset ad, woman playing tennis, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

No is the answer. More relaxing underwear is on the way.**

Dove undergarments ad, women flying through the sky in underwear, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Ad styles are changing too. The fragrance industry hasn’t gotten the memo that Art Nouveau is over,***

Djer-Kiss perfume ad, fairies in fantastical setting, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Pompeian fragrance ad, women bowing to huge perfume bottle, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

while these companies are ahead of the pack with bold colors and clear lines:

Indian Head Cloths ad, women at beach, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Old Dutch Cleanser ad, sink on red background, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Nashua Woolnap Blankets ad, children in bed, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

There are some constants. Ads for dried and canned fruit

Del Monte canned peaches ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920. 

and, God help us, cannned meat

Council Meats ad, cans of meat flying through the sky, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

are as popular as ever. Maids are at the ready to help their mistresses get dressed,

Wolfhead underwear ad, maid helping woman dress, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Hosiery ad, maid helping woman put on stocking, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

and fix breakfast for the little master,

Karo syrup ad, maid pouring syrup with boy, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

and change the baby,

Johnson's Baby Powder ad, maid sprinkling powder on baby, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

and hold up cans of wax.

Johnson's Prepared Wax ad, maid holding up can of wax, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Husbands, though? Not so helpful.****

Vacuum cleaner ad, husband dropping things on floor as wife vacuums, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

African-Americans are almost always shown as hardworking servants,*****

Aunt Jemima ad, Aunt Jemima and man making food, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

although this guy looks like he’s had it up to here and is about to heave the family’s breakfast at them.

Log Cabin syrup advertisement, African-American servant with platter of food, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920. 

I’ve done an excellent job of not mentioning you-know-what, but I can’t stop myself from ending with an ad that would never have caught my eye at any other time. A thousand old linen handkerchiefs indeed!

Scott toilet paper ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920

squiggle

*Yes, I do realize she may have her hair tied up in back. Besides, she’s eating shortening, so I don’t want to hold her up as too much of a role model.

**Although you could wear a corset with this underwear, of course. For a fascinating and hilarious look at what goes under what, read this witness2fashion post.

***I just read Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, a wonderful novel about a woman who worked in advertising in the early to mid-20th century, based loosely on the life of Margaret Fishback. In it, I learned that the advertising style where the product is portrayed as being enormous was known as “hellzapoppin’.”

****In case the print is too small for you to read, the ad says, “‘Now see what you’ve done!’ But careless hubby lacks concern, for he knows that offending cigar ashes are quickly and easily whisked off the rug by the ever handy Royal.” I hate hate hate this guy.

*****The exception: the man in the Cream of Wheat ads, real-life chef Frank L. White, whom I’ve written about before.

Cream of Wheat ad, chef pointing at box of cream of wheat, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Cream of Wheat ad, chef with children, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Coles Phillips Luxite hosiery ad.

5 Old Posts That Might Come in Handy Around Now

Hi everyone, I hope you’re all where you want to be, with the people you want to be with. I’m in my studio apartment in D.C., feeling lucky that, unlike many people I know, I’m able to see friends and family (from a distance) and go for long walks.

Mary Grace McGeehan, March 2020

Me in my studio apartment

Here are some old posts that might come in handy if you’ve had enough Marie Kondo-ing and binge-watching and need something to occupy your mind. And, if you’re feeling competitive, there’s a prize!

1.  Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out!

photograph of cameo, girl looking at hand surrounded by gemstones.

Tobias “ToMar” Maier

For this post, my most popular of 2018, I took a totally scientific intelligence test from the February 16, 1918, issue of Literary Digest that measures your intelligence by your ability to define 100 words. You, too, can find out whether you’re a superior adult!

2. Did College Shrink Your Breasts? A Quiz

Barnard College, 1918

In 1875, an awful guy named Dr. Henry Maudsley wrote an article called “Sex in Mind and Education” in a British journal. It was about how women are unfit to go to college with men, because menstruation. (And other things too, but that’s the main deal-breaker.) In 1918, the Education Review, an American journal edited by Columbia University’s horrible president Nicholas Butler,* for some reason saw fit to republish it. I took Maudsley’s arguments one by one and turned them into a quiz where you, too, can see if you’re unfit to go to college. (And like any highly scientific inquiry it needs a control group–that’s you, men!)

3. Can you beat me at this 1918 intelligence test? Probably!

American magazine headline, How High do You Stand on the Rating Scale? March 1919.

American magazine, March 1919

All smug over my 1918 performance, I set out to take a 1919 intelligence test. And, well, the title says it all. Would you fare better than me in the post-WWI workplace?** Find out here!

4. Are You A Stagnuck? A 1918 Year-End Quiz (With a Prize!)

False Armistice headline, New York Evening World, November 7, 1918.

New York Evening World, November 7, 1918 (Library of Congress)

In December 2018, as I wrapped up my year of reading as if I were living in 1918, I posted this quiz. The response was a resounding, “I give up! This is way too hard!” A year of immersion in 1918, it turned out, had left me severely delusional about normal people’s knowledge about the false armistice, the staffing of the Wilson administration, modernist literary criticism, and the like. But you have way more time on your hands now, so here’s your chance to give it another shot! The prize for the highest number of correct answers received by April 15, 2020 (or the first person to get them all right if more than one person does, which judging from previous experience is highly unlikely), is a book of your choice that was written in 1920 or before and is priced at $25 or below on Amazon or through your local independent bookseller. Answers are all on the blog, and there’s a hint right here on this page!***

5. Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For

Coles Phillips January 1916 Good Housekeeping cover illustration, woman and easel.

Coles Phillips

Maybe by now you’re thinking, “Really? She thinks what I need right now is to take a test? She doesn’t get me at all.” If that’s the case, you can relax your mind and feast your eyes on these wonderful illustrations from some of my favorite illustrators of 1919. I’ve been obsessed with Coles Phillips since I wrote this. The image at the top is from a 1917 ad of his from the Overland automobile company.

Stay safe and healthy, everyone!

squiggle

*Last May, when I was watching Jeopardy, Alex Trebek said, “The 1931 Nobel Peace Prize was shared by 2 Americans…” and I yelled from the kitchen, “Nicholas Butler!” He continued, “…Nicholas Butler and this Hull House cofounder.” “Jane Addams!” I yelled, as the contestants all sat there like dummies.

**Leaving aside that if you’re a man you definitely would.

***Submit your answers through the Contact page. If you win and you live outside the United States, I can’t promise to be able to send you your prize, but I’ll do the best I can.

1920 magazine covers bring late winter cheer

When I picked up my mail after arriving in D.C. from Cape Town a couple of weeks ago, I found to my surprise that I have been a New Yorker subscriber since September. My first reaction: “Oh, look, a giant pile of guilt!” Then I saw the brightly colored covers, and I wanted to gather them all in a slippery embrace, like fellow survivors from a lost world. Few things from 100 years ago bring me as much joy as magazine covers, and few things (well, few non-news-related things) are as dispiriting as a 2020 magazine rack.

I had a post on February 1920 covers almost ready before I left Cape Town, but what with all the electricity cuts I didn’t manage to post it. So I’m covering both February and March here.

The February magazines feature lots of women engaging in wholesome outdoor activities like skiing,

Country Life magazine cover, February 1920, woman skiing.

Edwin Wilson

snowshoeing,

and pathetic ice skating.

Norman Rockwell cover, Saturday Evening Post, February 7, 1920

Norman Rockwell

And also engaging in unwholesome outdoor activities like this:

Warren Davis March 1920 Vanity Fair cover, naked woman walking into the ocean.

Warren Davis

The artist for this surprisingly risqué cover is Warren Davis. He also drew this February 1918 Vanity Fair cover,

which I took note of back in February 2018. That one was also daring, but it struck me as having that Greek mythology vibe that lets you get away with anything. It turns out, though, that young women cavorting around outdoors naked, or at most with a diaphanous scarf, comprise pretty much Warren Davis’ entire oeuvre.*

Some favorite artists are back: Frank Walts at The Crisis,

Frank Walts The Crisis cover, February 1920, drawing of African-American boy.

Frank Walts

Helen Dryden at Vogue,

Helen Dryden Vogue cover, February 15, 1920, woman looking in mirror.

Helen Dryden

A.M. Hopfmuller at Shadowland,

A.M. Hopfmuller February 1920 Shadowland cover, abstract landscape.

A.M. Hopfmuller

and, as always, Erté at Harper’s Bazar.

Erté February 1920 Harper's Bazar cover, woman in gown on beach.

Erté

There’s a Valentine’s theme at Red Cross

Red Cross magazine cover, February 1920, dog carrying Valentines.

(Google/HathiTrust)

and at Smart Set, which I’m pleased to see breaking out of its face-of-young-attractive-woman rut.

There are people in traditional dress at Sunset

Sunset magazine cover, February 1920, woman in traditional Spanish-Mexican dress.

and Liberator

Hugo Gellert

and World Outlook.

I loved these covers from House & Garden

Charles Livingston Bull House & Garden cover, February 1920.

Charles Livingston Bull

and Popular Mechanics

February 1920 Popular Mechanics cover, vehicles transporting houses and stores.

and Elite Styles.

February 1920 Elite Styles cover, woman in gown in room.

As I prepared for my trip, I was all psyched up to leave the southern hemisphere summer for some outdoor winter fun. Of course, what I actually ended up doing was lugging groceries home in the rain. So good riddance to February…

…and onward to blustery March!

St. Nicholas cover, March 1920, young man and women in wind.

(Google/HathiTrust)

Woman's World cover, February 1920, children struggling with kite.

They’re getting in some late-season ice skating at Red Cross**

Norman Rockwell Red Cross cover, couple skating.

Norman Rockwell

and some early-season boating at Motor Boating.

Motor Boating cover, March 1920, woman in pink coat steering wheel of boat.

Am I reading this wrong or is this elephant being used as an accessory to kill other elephants?*** And don’t get me started on the African man in the loincloth.

Popular Mechanics cover, March 1920, elephant hunt.

Everybody’s is late to the Valentine’s Day party.

Everybody's magazine cover, March 1920, soldier with cupid in helmet.

Vogue has a cover by regular George Wolfe Plank

George Wolfe Plank Vogue cover, March 1, 1920, flapper on bed.

George Wolfe Plank

and one by 26-year-old newcomer Harriet Meserole, who would go on to be a Vogue stalwart.****

Vogue cover, March 15, 1920.

Harriet Meserole

Bright spring colors abound at Harper’s Bazar

Erte Harper's Bazar cover, March 1920, Erte.

Erté

and The Delineator

Delineator cover, March 1920, woman in cape.

and The Green Book

Green Book cover, March 1920.

and House & Garden

Harry Richardson House & Garden cover, March 1920, house with path and flowers.

Harry Richardson

and Shadowland

A.M. Hopfmuller Shadowland cover, March 1920.

A.M. Hopfmuller

and Vanity Fair, which features a cover by Anne Harriet Fish, an artist whom I wasn’t familiar with but who will now join Gordon Conway and John Held Jr. in the ranks of VF artists whose work I can’t tell apart.

Anne Harriet Fish Vanity Fair cover, March 1920, couples dancing.

Anne Harriet Fish

Future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin was the artist for this striking, though problematic to modern sensibilities, Life cover.

Rea Irvin Life magazine cover, March 1920.

Rea Irvin

This woman on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post seems to be about to ditzily cast her first vote for the supposedly more handsome candidate, which I would take offense at, except, um, Warren Harding.*****

Neysa McMein Saturday Evening Post cover, March 6, 1920.

Neysa McMein

The woodcut on the cover of Liberator is by J.J. Lankes, who was a friend of, and illustrator for, Robert Frost and Sherwood Anderson.

J.J. Lankes Liberator cover, March 1920, woodcut of horse and cart.

J.J. Lankes

This Photoplay cover isn’t particularly notable except that “If Christ Went to the Movies” is the best cover headline ever.******

Rolf Armstrong Photoplay cover, March 1920, Alice Joyce.

Rolf Armstrong

And it wouldn’t be March without a lion and a lamb, courtesy of Carton Moore-Park:*******

Carton Moore-Park Ladies' Home Journal cover, March 1920, lion and lamb with astrological signs.

Carton Moore-Park

Counting the days until spring!

squiggle

*Google him if you don’t want to take my word for it. Just don’t do it at the office.

**According to the go-to site for Norman Rockwell cover information, this was Rockwell’s fourth and last cover for Red Cross, which folded in late 1920. Rockwell turned to smaller magazines when large-circulation magazines passed on his illustrations.

***I always thought you couldn’t ride African, as opposed to Asian, elephants. Apparently you can, although, according to animal rights advocates, you shouldn’t.

****As far as I can tell, this is Meserole’s first Vogue cover other than this February 1919 one, which is mostly white space:

Harriet Meserole Vogue cover, March 15, 1920

*****Also, the cover artist, Neysa McMein, was a woman and an ardent supporter of gender equality. Here she is marching in a suffragist parade in 1917.

Neysa McMein marching in a suffragist parade, 1917.

New York Times, November 4, 1917

******Excerpt:

Excerpt from March 1920 Photoplay article "If Christ Went to the Movies."

*******Moore-Park also drew the “is it a lady or a parrot?” August 1919 LHJ cover.

Carton Moore-Park August 1919 Ladies' Home Journal cover, parrot looking at caterpiller.

The doctor and the chorus girl: a heartbreaking tale of interracial love

Recently, during one of the twice-a-day power cuts we’ve been experiencing in South Africa, I was reading a printout of the September 1919 inaugural issue of Shadowland,

Cover of Shadowland, September 1919, person filming tree with flowers.

September 1919

the movie magazine I mentioned in my last post. There was an article about the “Fame and Fortune” contest that Motion Picture magazine, Shadowland’s sister publication, had been running to select a future movie star. Fifty thousand young women had sent in their photographs, and, after months of deliberation, the celebrity jury, which included Mary Pickford and Cecil de Mille, was about to make its decision. The Shadowland article profiled four of the finalists.

Shadowland, September 1919

For lack of anything better to do in the absence of electricity, I started Googling the contestants on my phone. Three of them went on to, at best, brief, lackluster acting careers. The fourth, Helen Lee Worthing, joined the Ziegfeld Follies, went into the movies, married a black doctor…

What?

So began a week of obsessive research about Worthing and her husband, Eugene Nelson. The story of the early success and subsequent decline of these two talented people is one of the most fascinating, and one of the saddest, that I have come across during this project.

Helen Lee Worthing, Cosmopolitan, August 1922.

Helen Lee Worthing, Cosmopolitan, August 1922

Worthing was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Louisville, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Her tombstone and Wikipedia profile list her birthdate as January 31, 1905. Since this would mean that she was fourteen at the time of the Shadowland profile, which describes her driving around Louisville doing “errands of mercy” for the Red Cross, she seems—like many actresses before and since—to have shaved a few years off of her age. If the age listed in her Los Angeles Times obituary is correct, she was actually born in 1898 or 1899.

The contest judges ended up picking four winners, but Worthing wasn’t one of them.* She soon became a popular member of the Ziegfeld Follies, though, and often appeared in newspapers doing things that were considered newsworthy when done by chorus girls, like having a pet pig

Helen Lee Worthing with pet pig.

Seattle Star, April 20, 1921

and working out on an exercise bicycle.

Helen Lee Worthing on exercise bicycle, 1921.

Salem Capital-Journal, March 18, 1921

Worthing married a Wall Street businessman named Charles MacDonald in 1921. Or maybe they secretly married in 1917—like many aspects of Worthing’s life, details are blurry. They divorced in 1922. According to a syndicated article called “When a Husband is Jealous of His Wife’s Job” (or alternatively, “When a Wife is Jealous of Her Husband’s Job”), Worthing blamed the failure of her marriage on her career success.

“My business was my husband’s rival, all right,” she said, “for I made the mistake of earning more than he did. There were other things of course. Our working hours didn’t coincide for one thing and then neither of us was willing to give in to the other. But it all came back to my salary.”

Headline, When a Husand is Jealous of His Wife's Job, 1922.

South Bend News-Times, April 16, 1922

I couldn’t help sympathizing with MacDonald about the working hours issue:

“I go to work at quarter of twelve midnight and am not done until after two. Mr. MacDonald usually goes to bed about the time I am going to work. And I come in all thrilled and ready to make an evening of it, at 3 A.M., when he is getting his beauty sleep.”

The article also contains a troubling remark:

“He did not mind if I went to dinner with some other man or if a thousand cavaliers sent me violets…If, just once, he had blackened my eye, because I thought of some other man, I could have forgiven him everything. If he had loved me enough to be jealous—all would have been well. But not he.”

That is, if Worthing actually said this. I always take quotes in newspapers from this period with a grain of salt. The cavaliers with violets and the “but not he” sound particularly bogus. In any case, Worthing was later quoted as accusing MacDonald of giving her a black eye with his “big Irish fist.”

Photograph of Helen Lee Worthing with headline Loser in Bout Between Chorus Girls Takes Poison Tablets for Headaches.

Albuquerque Morning Journal, April 26, 1922

It was a month later that Worthing’s self-destructive behavior first made headlines. On April 20, newspapers—including the New York Times, which wasn’t as fascinated by the personal lives of chorus girls as other papers—reported that she had poisoned herself with bichloride of mercury. She claimed that she had meant to take aspirin, but her “friends” said they believed she had tried to take her life.

Headshot of Ziegfeld Follies chorus member Edna Wheaton.

Edna Wheaton, todocoleccion.net

A few weeks before, Worthing had had an altercation with fellow Follies chorus member Edna Wheaton, possibly about a boyfriend of Worthing’s named Jack. “They fought, kicking and scratching one another until separated,” a news report stated. “The fight cost her her position.” A Hearst newspaper ran a cartoon of the scuffle.

Headline, When I Married a Follies Girl Beauty, 1922

Washington Times, December 17, 1922

A young society man named Daniel Caswell, in a syndicated article he wrote following his own marriage to a chorus girl, expressed skepticism about Worthing’s suicide attempt:

Swallowing bichloride of mercury is considered the best [method of pretending to attempt suicide] by most of the chorus girls, for the reason that the poison can easily be pumped out of the stomach with little damage to their looks or their figures.

Ziegfeld Follies program, 1923

In 1925, Worthing’s appearance on Palm Beach with fellow showgirl Phoebe Lee caused a sensation. As a reporter recalled six years later, “When they came onto the beach the town gasped, telephone wires began buzzing, cameras started clicking, and the Misses Worthing and Lee walked into temporary fame.” What really got the crowds agitated, apparently, was the “weird contrast” between their attire—Worthing was wearing a “smart bathing suit of red silk” and Lee “a home-made bathing suit of calico somewhat resembling blue rompers.” Worthing and Lee had had to beg for a vacation, but, after this excellent publicity, managers started dispatching chorus girls to popular resorts to drum up business for their shows.

Cover of Broadway Brevities, 1925

There was one undesired piece of publicity that year: Worthing testified in the extortion trial of Gregory Clow, editor of the scandal sheet Broadway Brevities, that she had paid him $150 to kill a story. Clow was found guilty on several counts and sentenced to prison. Worthing was back in court in 1926, suing a perfume company for using her photographs without her permission.

John Barrymore and Helen Worthing in Don Juan, 1926.

On the whole, though, things were going well. Worthing acted in a half-dozen movies between 1924 and 1926, including Don Juan, in which she appeared with John Barrymore (along with a number of other women, of course). The New York Times said of her performance in The Swan, released in 1925, “Miss Worthing is capital in this part, very pretty and carefully gowned.” The Washington Star called her “very fair to look upon” in the 1926 movie Watch Your Wife.

Poster for 1926 movie Watch Your Wife.

Then, in 1927, she married Dr. Eugene Nelson.

Dr. Eugene Nelson at his office, 1929.

Dr. Eugene Nelson, New York World-Telegram and Sun, December 23, 1929

Nelson was born in South Carolina in 1888, attended college at Prairie View Normal and Industrial College near Houston, and graduated in 1911 from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, the first black medical school in the south. He moved to Los Angeles, which was considered one of the best places in the United States for African-Americans to live at the time (if only because their numbers were small and racism was primarily directed against Mexican-Americans), and opened a medical practice.

Headline, Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson

In October 1924, the leftist African-American magazine The Messenger ran a profile by its co-founder, Chandler Owen, titled “Dr. Eugene Curry Nelson: A Professional Business Man of a New Type Among Negroes.”

Chandler Owen, 1919.

Chandler Owen, 1919

While he was on his way to Los Angeles, Owen wrote, fellow train passengers kept telling him to look up Dr. Nelson. When he arrived in L.A., his host took him to the Humming Bird, a nightclub that turned out to be owned by Nelson.

An excellent orchestra was producing the sort of subdued syncopated music that fills one with the very joy of living. Chicago, New York and many other cities have beautiful places of amusement similar to the Humming Bird, but none better…It is the Fountain of Youth for the tired and jaded, the bored and melancholy.

Humming Bird, Los Angeles night club, The Messenger, 1924.

The Humming Bird, The Messenger, October 1924

A 1924 Los Angeles Record article on a raid on the Humming Bird, written by 16-year-old reporter George Hodel, describes the club differently: “The atmosphere is saturated by the odor of intoxicants. The spirit of the men and women inside is changing from tipsy fun to licentious debauchery.” The police swept in “while white women careened drunkenly in the Arms of Negro escorts.” The Humming Bird, officers tell Hodel, “has been a nightlife rendezvous, where whites dine, dance and drink with members of the city’s Negro colony.” It’s a place, Hodel reports, where “the wildest sorts of orgies are carried on nightly.”

Interior of the Humming Bird, Los Angeles nightclub, 1924.

The Humming Bird, The Messenger, October 1924

Hodel mentions in passing that this was the third raid on the Humming Bird in three nights, so it struck me that the attempts by the police to shut it down may have been less than sincere. I assume that after the broken bottles and the screaming there was a payoff in a back room before the festivities resumed. (Hodel, by the way,  went on to be the chief suspect in the notorious 1947 “Black Dahlia” killing. His story about the raid appears in a book by his son, retired LAPD detective Steve Hodel, who believes he was guilty.)

Owen gave a speech, which Nelson attended. A few days later, he joined Nelson and his wife, mother-in-law, and two daughters at their home.**

Photo montage of Eugene Nelson, his wife Angelita, and their house from The Messenger, 1924.

The Messenger, October 1924

We soon found ourselves seated at the table, which was artistically decorated for the evening repast. As we chatted I learned of his interest in literature, art, and science. He has a bent for poetry and fiction.

Nelson’s business interests weren’t confined to the Humming Bird. Among his other enterprises, he was the driving force behind a bank that financed black businesses and owned a share in an oil well. Owen—seeming to forget momentarily that he’s a socialist—waxes lyrical about the white American business giants whom Nelson, in his eyes, resembles.

Nelson is, Owen concludes,

a man of high character and intelligence—a great asset to any community. Some day when you go to Los Angeles, you will very likely hear the same complimentary remarks about the good doctor that it was my pleasure to hear. And, what is far more important, you will find them to be true!

Eugene Nelson and Helen Lee Worthing, 1929.

Nelson and Worthing, 1929

Most accounts of Nelson and Worthing’s relationship say that they met in April 1927, when he was called to treat her after she was assaulted by a stranger in her home. The Los Angeles Times said in its report on the incident, however, that Worthing had been “confined to her bed due to a nervous breakdown and was under the care of Dr. Eugene Nelson.” In a reminiscence that was published in Ebony magazine in 1952, after her death, Worthing wrote that they met when her maid called him after she fell ill following a party during the filming of The Swan, which was released in February 1925.*** Given that this was just a few months after the account in the Messenger of Nelson’s apparently happy domestic life, it may have suited Nelson and Worthing to give the impression that they met later.

Helen Lee Worthing

Los Angeles Times, April 16, 1927

Newspapers all over the country ran stories about the attack. Worthing said she had been awakened in her bedroom at 10:30 p.m. and gotten up to turn the light. She didn’t remember anything after that until her maid, May Roziner, found her unconscious, lying in a pool of blood with her nose broken and a tooth knocked out. Nothing was stolen. “Owing to its unusual character, [the incident] was not reported to the police,” the Los Angeles Times said. Roziner later claimed that she had seen a strange man lurking about the Worthing bungalow, which, the papers reported (helpfully to future intruders), was located at 6823 Iris Circle, Hollywood. There was a skeptical tone to some of the newspaper accounts, but no one pointed out that this was exactly the type of situation in which you would call the police or otherwise called Worthing’s bluff on this bogus-sounding story.

New York Times headline, Burglar Hits Actress.

New York Times, April 17, 1927

So what did happen? One possibility is that Worthing fell while intoxicated. The Los Angeles Times reported that “at a consultation of Dr. Nelson with other physicians…it was decided that her injuries could not have been due to a fall caused by a sudden lapse of consciousness, and that she must have been attacked,” suggesting that Nelson was trying to forestall rumors of a drunken fall.

There are holes in Worthing’s account of her first meeting with Nelson as well. There must have been dozens of doctors on call to treat ailing Hollywood residents. Calling a black doctor wasn’t something that was generally done—“it caused some comment that she should call a Negro physician,” an African-American news service later reported. So there had to be a particular reason why he was called. Like, for example, an unwanted pregnancy. This possibility makes sense given details of Nelson’s practice that later came to light.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Nelson

Worthing and Nelson, date unknown, from San Francisco Examiner, June 2, 1935

However they met, they fell in love. This is one part of the story about which there seems to be no doubt.

Interracial marriage had been illegal in California since 1850 (and would remain so until 1948), so Nelson and Worthing were married in a civil ceremony in Tijuana on June 28, 1927, two months after the purported attack. The story was featured prominently in the African-American press.

Headline: Prominent Physician Weds White Movie Star

Pittsburgh Courier, July 30, 1929

“East is East and West is West and Never the Twain shall meet” may be true and good in everything but love and war,

the report in the July 30 issue of the Indianapolis Recorder began.

At least that is the opinion of Helen Lee Worthing, beautiful Hollywood film actress and former Follies girl, as she planned to cinch her recent civil marriage at Tia Juana, Mexico, June 28, to Dr. Eugene Nelson, prominent and wealthy colored physician, by repeating the marriage troth with a marriage ceremony to be performed this week at Mexico City, D.F.

Dr. Nelson, Beau Brummel of the local profession, financial backer of Culver City “black and tan” resorts and whose professional clients include a mixture of all nationalities and races with the Negro in the minority, seems not at all disturbed at the premature release in a Los Angeles daily, of the secret marriage and in a personal interview with a representative of the P.C.N.B. [an African-American wire service] as to the correctness of the report merely shrugged and replied: “Well they say I have done it. However the announcement came prematurely. We didn’t intend for the story to get out but I think a girl friend of her’s told it in New York and the story got out that way.”

The couple honeymooned blissfully in La Jolla. This carefree time didn’t last for long, though. When they returned home, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article, she saw an article headlined “Film Colony Shocked as Helen Lee Worthing Marries Colored Physician.”

One night, after Worthing and Nelson had moved into a luxurious home on Wilshire Boulevard, they attended a theater opening. They arrived in a limousine, she in a mink and he in a tuxedo. There were some comments about how lovely she looked, then jeers and derisive laughter as people noticed Nelson. During the intermission, Worthing saw a friend from the Follies, but “there was no recognition or friendliness in her eyes. I might have been a stranger to her.”

Worthing’s screen career ended and she disappeared from the papers until December 1929, when news of her separation from Nelson caused a sensation.

Headline, Lost Stage Beauty Separates from Negro Mate

Bismarck Tribune, December 19, 1929

As reported in the Los Angeles Examiner, via a December 19 article in the Bismarck Tribune,****

the mysterious disappearance two years ago of Helen Lee Worthing, former New York stage beauty, apparently has been solved with the revelation that she has separated from her husband, Dr. Eugene C. Nelson, a negro physician of Los Angeles who admitted that he was a ‘colored’ man but denied that he was an ‘African.’

Accused of dodging the questions of his race, Nelson said he did it to protect his wife.***** “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much.” Race had nothing to do with the separation, he said. “It was simply that she was jealous. I believe she would like a reconciliation.”

An AP story said that Nelson and Worthing

lived for some time in Hollywood and later moved to the section in Los Angeles where persons of the colored race predominate. Miss Worthing gradually dropped all of her screen colony friends although, it was said, they had no idea that her husband was not a caucasian.******

So what was he, exactly? Inquiring minds wanted to know. The United Press reported that

asked if he was a negro, he said: “What is a negro? As I understand it a negro is African. I am not an African, I am an American. You might say I’m ‘colored.’”

This nuanced explication of racial terminology is, apparently, what the press meant when they kept saying that Nelson had “denied he was a Negro.”

Headline: Stage Beauty Back Home With Colored Hubby After 'Spat'

Bismarck Tribune, December 20. 1929

Just a day later, the papers reported that Nelson and Worthing had reconciled. “I hope no one feels badly about it,” Worthing was quoted as saying in a United Press report. “I love him too much to leave him. I know he has Negro blood, but he’s all the world to me.” The AP quoted her as saying, “To me he is not what the world would call a negro. He is not black in skin or black in heart. I believe he loves me better than anything in the world, and I know that I do him. No social barrier in the world can separate us.” Nelson was quoted in the UP story as saying, “We belong to different races, but we both are intelligent and our love surmounts any racial barriers.”

Headline "White woman, black mate happy again."

San Pedro News Pilot, December 21, 1929

On December 21, the AP reported that Worthing and Nelson were planning a second honeymoon in Palm Springs.

“Our troubles now are happily over,” Mrs. Nelson said as she rested in the “garden of love” of her home today. Dr. Nelson, debonair mustached professional man, whose skin is little darker than the olive complexion of a Spaniard, nodded agreement with his white wife’s words.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Worthing over caption "Their Separation Denied," December 1929.

Indianapolis Recorder, December 29, 1930

This happy time didn’t last long. Over the next few years there were reports of separations, reconciliations, alimony disputes, and medical treatment for Worthing for fake-sounding conditions like “persistent insomnia.” Worthing filed, and dropped, several suits for divorce.  She accused Nelson of “physical pain and unspeakable humiliation,” including locking her out of their house while she was dressed in a negligee and giving her drugs to make her crazy. He accused her of infidelity, including with a 16-year-old boy, and of using her alimony payments to buy narcotics. A neighbor in the Glendale apartment house where Worthing was living said that she was suffering from hallucinations and had attempted suicide. A judge ruled that she was mentally ill and paroled her to Nelson’s care.

Helen Lee Worthing and Eugene Nelson in 1933, shortly after their annulment

Worthing and Nelson in 1933, after their annulment

During what turned out to be their final divorce proceeding, Nelson counter-filed for an annulment on the grounds that they had not met Mexican residency requirements when they married in Tijuana. Worthing fought back for a while and then, during a February 1933 hearing, burst out, “Let him have the annulment.” When her attorney tried to stop her, concerned about her alimony, she said, “I have confidence in the doctor.”

Headline Missing Ex-Actress Found, with photo of Helen Lee Worthing

Boston Globe, June 19, 1933

In June 1933, Worthing disappeared from a New York-bound train in Pasadena. Police, suspecting that she had jumped, searched the area around the tracks. She was found shortly afterwards in a Los Angeles hotel. She and Nelson had been discussing a reconciliation, she said, but he had changed his mind and put her on the train.

Margaret Fay Desmond

Margaret Fay Desmond, Bismarck Tribune, July 19, 1933

The rumored reason for Nelson’s change of heart: a romance with a white woman named Margaret Fay Desmond, whose husband was suing him for $100,000 for alienation of affections.******* The United Press reported that Nelson had used terms like “Dear heart,” “Fay, my love,” and “Honey love” in letters to Desmond, who was working as a stenographer in his office. (Desmond’s husband lost the suit.)

In April 1935, Worthing was arrested for public intoxication when police found her sitting on a curbstone, singing to herself. “Helen Worthing…singer now,” the Indianapolis Times said, meanly, in a caption under a picture of Worthing in her chorus girl days.

Helen Lee worthing with nurse after 1935 suicide attempt.

Los Angeles Times, September 12, 1935 (newspapers.com)

In September of that year, while living in a charity home, Worthing tried to commit suicide because, she said, the man she loved was marrying someone else. “With all my other troubles, this was more than I could stand,” she was quoted as saying. “But I don’t want any sympathy. I should have been stronger.”

In 1939, Worthing pleaded guilty to forging a narcotics prescription. During her probation hearing, the AP reported, four of her former “negro servants”—two maids, a cook, and a chauffeur—promised to contribute $15 a week to pay for her training as a “beauty culture instructor.”

Headline: Helen Lee Worthing, 49, Toasted as Beauty, Dies

Los Angeles Times, August 26, 1948

In August 1948, after many attempts to end her life, Worthing died of an overdose of sleeping pills. She had been living in the three-room Hollywood home of Jerry Oro, a 39-year-old man from the Philippines, who said that he had been her friend for ten years. Her tiny room, the AP reported, was full of “yellowed clippings depicting the rise, and quick fall, of the dancer.”

Scrawled on the leaf of a book found next to her bed, the Los Angeles Times reported, was a note saying, “I can’t stand another straw—it would be too much.”

Headline: Negro Doctor Held in Operation Death

San Pedro News Pilot, March 7, 1941

Nelson also met a sad end. In 1940, his medical license was revoked for the performance of an illegal operation, i.e. an abortion. He continued practicing, however, and the next year he was arrested for performing an abortion on a 25-year-old woman named Otilia (Tillie) Durazzo, who died after the procedure. Nelson was killed in a head-on collision in 1962, at the age of 74, while driving on a coastal highway north of San Diego. His tombstone says “husband,” so he was married at the time—to whom, I’m not sure.

What struck me most about Nelson was the aplomb he demonstrated through all this. After he married Worthing, journalists never asked about his professional accomplishments, or whether he and his wife had encountered racism. All they cared about was whether he was a “Negro” and whether he had lied about it. He fielded one ridiculous question after another with laconic good nature. “I am what I am. It can’t hurt me much,” he said.

Except, of course, it did.

I had mixed feelings about posting this sordid and depressing story during Black History Month, and on Valentine’s Day. But history isn’t just a parade of heroes. It’s also the story of flawed people and the social forces that acted on them.  Worthing and Nelson committed an exceptional act of courage in marrying, and they paid a high price.

And love is still love even if it’s not destined to stand the test of time. Let’s leave Worthing and Nelson on their honeymoon in La Jolla, where, Worthing wrote in the Ebony article,

our luxurious hotel suite looked out over the ocean and during the night I could hear the surf breaking on the rocks below. Once I remember thinking, dreamily—the restless waves are like my soul—yearning and seeking for peace. And now at last I have found it.

squiggle

*None of the four finalists went on to stardom, either, but the contest became an annual feature and the winner in 1922 was 16-year-old Clara Bow.

Clara Bow, Motion Picture magazine, January 1922.

Motion Picture, January 1922

**Owen says that the Nelson family lived at 108 South Oxford Street. There doesn’t appear to be such an address in Los Angeles today. There’s a 108 South Oxford Avenue in the Wilshire Central neighborhood, but, as far as I can tell from my very limited knowledge of L.A. geography, it seems to be an unlikely residence for Nelson. Most African-Americans lived in the neighborhood now known as South Central, then referred to as the “Black Belt.” (My efforts to parse Los Angeles geography were greatly assisted by this amazing map.) (UPDATE 1/15/10: According to  this dissertation by Alison Rose Jefferson, which became the book Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, Nelson’s residence was in fact at 108 South Oxford Avenue and his medical practice was at one point in the West Adams district, not far from there.)

***I wasn’t able to access the Ebony article, so I’m relying on a description of Worthing’s account in the book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.

****For this post, I’ve made extensive use for the first time of the newspaper archive on the Library of Congress website. It doesn’t have most major newspapers (which tend to be hidden behind infuriating paywalls), but the newspapers in the collection relied extensively on wire service reports and articles from larger papers.

*****It’s not clear what “it” was. Given that Nelson was a leader in the black community and lived there for most of his life, the charge of “passing” seems ridiculous, even if you accept the flawed premise that his ethnic background was anyone’s business. My theory is that, during the short time he and Worthing lived in a white area, he didn’t go out of his way to tell everyone he met that he was African-American, and this was regarded as deceptive.

******These “friends” appear in news stories over and over, claiming that they had no idea that Worthing’s husband had “Negro blood” and expressing bewilderment about why she had “withdrawn” and moved to a black neighborhood. No journalist ever raised the possibility that her friends had withdrawn from her rather than vice versa.

*******Alienation of affections laws have since been repealed in California and most of the rest of the United States. However, I was surprised to learn that they remain in effect in six states. The Supreme Court has refused requests to review their constitutionality.

Woman's face, from La Vie Parisienne cover, January 1920.

Magazine Covers Ring in the 1920s

I’ve been in summer school at the University of Cape Town for the last three weeks, studying, among other things, Portuguese.* Between that, obsessing over the recently released archive of T.S. Eliot’s letters to his longtime love Emily Hale, and a pair of maritime mishaps that have been wreaking havoc on South Africa’s internet, I haven’t been able to get much blogging done. But it doesn’t seem right to let the first month of a new decade pass unrecognized, so I figured I’d look into how magazine covers ushered in the 1920s.**

The Saturday Evening Post rang in the new year with this J.C. Leyendecker cover. (The camel is a symbol of Prohibition.)

J.C. Leyendecker January 1920 Saturday Evening Post cover, baby with camel toy.

Sotheby’s website features this painting by Leyendecker, which may have been his original concept for the cover.

J.C. Leyendecker painting of baby with whiskey bottle and camel toy.

sothebys.com

I can see why the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t go for it, but this version makes more sense because without the bottle of whiskey what is the baby shushing us about?

That’s about it for New Year’s-themed covers.

Erté, as always, is at the helm at Harper’s Bazar, with this cover,

Erte cover, Harper's Bazar, January 1920, woman with flowing shawl.

which, unusually, has some text on the illustration: “Begin Arnold Bennett’s New Essays on Women in this Issue.” I skimmed the essay, which was in equal parts irritating, boring, and off-topic.***

Vogue starts out the decade with a Georges Lepape cover featuring a person of color, but not in a good way:

George Lepape Vogue cover, January 1920, woman holding fruit, black man with tray on head.

This Vanity Fair cover is too good not to repeat. I’m not sure who the artist is, but I’m guessing John Held Jr. or possibly Gordon Conway. (Update 2/4/2019: It’s John Held Jr. I found the signature on a scanned copy of the magazine on Hathitrust.)

Vanity Fair cover, January 1920, cartoon of people driving cars.

There’s a George Brandt interior on House & Garden,

George Brandt House & Garden January 1920 cover, sofa with portrain of woman.

and a picture of movie star Norma Talmadge by Rolf Armstrong on Photoplay.****

Illustration of Norma Talmadge by Rolf Armstrong, Photoplay, January 1920.

The Crisis features a photograph of a woman from St. Lucia,

The Crisis cover, January 1920, woman wearing turban.

and Liberator has, um, something Bolshiviki by Lydia Gibson.

Liberator cover, Lydia Gibson, January 1920, woman with spear.

Life’s “Profiteers’ Number” features a cover by John Madison.

Life cover, January 1920, John Madison, cartoon of man and cupid.

In sunny South Africa, I sighed over the snowy scenes on the covers of Literary Digest (by Norman Rockwell)

Norman Rockwell January 1920 Literary Digest cover, bearded man looking at thermometer in snow.

and Red Cross Magazine

Red Cross magazine cover, baby feeding birds in snow while mother watches.

and Country Life

Country Life cover, January 1920, car in snow.

and La Vie Parisienne.*****

La Vie Parisienne cover, January 1920, woman in fur behind snowy branch.

If I could pick one snow scene to transport myself into, Mary Poppins-style, it would be this one, from St. Nicholas.

St. Nicholas cover, January 2020, skating boy pushing girl on sled.

And, finally, two new****** publications that are well worth looking at: Shadowland, a beautifully designed movie magazine that features A.M. Hopfmuller as its regular cover artist,

Shadowland cover, January 1920, trees with swirls of green.

and The Brownies’ Book, the first-ever magazine for African-American children, edited by, who else, W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Brownies' Book first issue cover, girl dressed as angel.

I’ll be following both of these exciting ventures in the months to come.

In the meantime, happy January, everyone. Or, as we say in Portuguese, feliz janeiro!

Cartera magazine cover, January 2020, man sweating in front of giant sun with face.

*The other things: Dante’s Purgatorio, special relativity, Rembrandt, Plato and Euclid, Vermeer, Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, religious poetry, South African history and politics, and the Enlightenment. I tend to shop for summer school tickets like a hungry person at the supermarket.

**It turns out that when you put 1920 in Google it thinks you’re talking about the whole decade, so I keep having to sift through irrelevant pictures of flappers. It’s going to be an annoying year.

***But don’t worry, Virginia Woolf will, with her brilliant 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (published by the aforementioned Hogarth Press), make Arnold Bennet regret that he’d ever SEEN a woman.

Cover of Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Virginia Woolf, 1924.

****Armstrong also turns out to have illustrated the August 1918 Metropolitan magazine cover that won the surprisingly competitive Best Magazine Cover of a Woman Swimming with a Red Scarf on Her Head award.

*****This woman is, by La Vie Parisienne standards, displaying an unusual ability to keep all her clothes on.

******Or, in the case of Shadowland, almost new—its first issue appeared in September 1919.

The Top 10 Posts of 1919…and a new name for a new decade

Happy New Year, everyone!

The beginning of a new decade is a good time for a fresh start. A time to review your diet, and your exercise routine, and your blog title. When I launched My Year in 1918 on January 1, 2018, I expected it to be a one-year journey to the world of a hundred years ago. Which it was, in the sense that I spent that year reading ONLY as if I were living 100 years ago. Since this is not something one can do indefinitely, I reentered the 21st century at the beginning of 2019. I found I didn’t want to leave the 1910s behind, though, so I continued reading and writing about the world of 1919.

Vanity Fair cover, January 1920, cartoon of people driving cars.

Which, since I didn’t listen to my friend Emily, who warned me about this exact scenario, left me with an outdated blog name. I didn’t worry about this too much in 2019, seeing the year as an extended victory lap. But, as the 1920/2020s approached, I was growing tired of having to give long-winded explanations about why my blog was called My Year in 1918.

So I’m excited to announce this blog’s new, non-expiring, name: My Life 100 Years Ago.*

The Crisis cover, January 1920, woman wearing turban.

Now on to the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 wasn’t as competitive a category in 2019 as it was in 2018, when, posting with monomaniacal zeal, I ended up with 94 contenders. Last year I only published 21 posts. Still, thanks to the magic of Google search engine optimization—the more you’ve written the more important Google thinks you are, so you end up being, say, the go-to person on glamorous spy ring leader Despina Storch—I ended up with a slightly higher number of views in 2019 than in 2018.**

Here are the top 10 posts, starting with #7 because there is, weirdly, a four-way tie in that position.

#7 (tie). Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For

Coles Phillips Vogue cover, woman with hat,

I had a great time learning about the lives and art of these illustrators. My favorite discovery was Coles Phillips, who pioneered the Fadeaway Girl technique.***

#7 (tie). Can you beat me at this 1919 intelligence test? Probably!

Number chart for intelligence test, American Magazine, 1919.

Last year, I took a vocabulary-based intelligence test from 1918 and did pretty well. This year, I took a series of intelligence tests from 1919 and, well, the title says it all.

#7 (tie). My Perfect 1919 Summer Morning

I woke up one day in D.C. to find it was a miraculously beautiful August morning, then spent the whole day inside writing this blog post. It was worth it, though. For one thing, I now know way more than I used to about 1919 deodorant.

#7 (tie). Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

While spending a month in Sweden, I looked into the life of the first woman Nobel Prize laureate in literature and found lots of romantic intrigue.

#6. Princeton interlude: Orange and black is the new black

Princeton students in beer suits, ca. 1926.

In which I go to my Princeton grad school reunion and take on a burning question: What’s with those goofy jackets?

#5. And the best novel of 1918 is…

Good news—clickbait works! So I won’t tell you what it is here either. Hint: it’s based on the real-life woman pictured with her family in this photograph.

#4. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge, Part 2

I have had a huge amount of fun doing this blog. The intelligence tests! The quizzes on What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? and Did College Shrink Your Breasts?! The search for 1918 love! But setting out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook was the most fun of all. In this second round, I polished silver and translated Proust and played the recorder and…well, read for yourself!

#3. Children’s Books: Your 1919 Holiday Shopping Guide

Man shooting duck, illustration by Boyd Smith, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

This was another of my favorite projects of the year, and readers must have agreed—this post shot up to #3 in only twelve days. One surprise was the amount of violence in children’s books of 100 years ago. The illustration here is from a NURSERY RHYME.

#2. April 1919 Ladies’ Home Journal Ads: A Riot of Color for Spring

1919 Uneeda Biscuit ad with slogan Peace and Plenty, illustration of cornucopia.

The popularity of this post taught me this lesson: “People don’t care what you write, just put up a bunch of cool pictures and they’ll be happy.”

#1. My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge

The humongous success of this post—it had three time as many views as the next most popular post of the year—shows that readers had as much fun as I did with the Girl Scout badge quest. Luckily, there are more badges to be earned this year, with a new edition of the Girl Scout handbook out in 1920. And if you missed the second installment, it’s just a click away at #4!

Honorable Mentions:

Downtown Provo

Exploring Provo–and Mormon History: Sometimes initial popularity hurts a post in the stats, because if you read the post at the top of the blog without clicking on it then it’s credited to the home page. This is what happened with this post, which tied the record for daily views when first published but ended up as #18 of 21 for the year.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918: There’s no particular reason to give this post an honorable mention except that I like it, it wasn’t far out of tied-for-tenth place, and it’s a good introduction to the blog if you’re just discovering it now.

Dishonorable Mention

More beautiful images from 1918: I always hope that the least-viewed post of the year doesn’t turn out to be a labor of love that I spent days and days on. Luckily (and perhaps not coincidentally), this hasn’t been the case so far. 2019’s worst performer, with 10 views**** (which is at least better than last year’s two), is one of three posts of images that I published in the first weeks of 2019, when I was shell-shocked after emerging from 1918. So I guess the “people only want to look at pictures” rule isn’t infallible.

Best-Performing Post from 2018

In search of a good mother poem: Posts originally published in 2018 didn’t qualify for Top 10 honors. Which is bad luck for this one, which only came in 17th last year but was this year’s second most viewed overall. I hope that all these visitors weren’t seeking inspirational Mother’s Day verse, since they would have been disappointed. That is, I think “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” William Carlos Williams’ tribute to his fierce grandmother, is inspiring, but I can’t imagine it on a needlepoint sampler.

All the best for the new year! I’m looking forward to sharing the Roaring Twenties with you.

squiggle

*UPDATE 1/2/2020: This blog’s URL is now officially mylife100yearsago.com. Myyearin1918.com redirects to this site, so everything should happen seamlessly from your end regardless of how you access it, except maybe RSS feeds. (Drop me a line if it doesn’t.) Everyone on the internet made this process sound incredibly scary–“you’ll want to brush up on your FTP skills,” etc.–but it ended up taking five minutes on WordPress.

**Another thing about search engine optimization: Google severely punishes broken links, which my blog suddenly has lots of. The Modernist Journals Project recently revamped its site, breaking my many links to magazines such as The Smart Set, The Crisis, and The Little Review. I’m fixing them one by one. If you encounter a broken link to something you need (or just want) to see, send me a message on the Contact page and I’ll send you the link. (To the person who clicked eight times last week trying in vain to get to the issue of The Smart Set with H.L. Mencken’s review of My Ántonia in it, here it is.)

***Phillips seems to have been the inspiration for Grace Lin’s children’s book A Big Bed for Little Snow, which was just reviewed in the New York Times, with a fadeaway illustration from the book of a mother and child. In the book, Lin writes, “Little Snow listened to Mommy’s footsteps fade away,” which I suspect is a shout-out. (UPDATE 1/18/020: I sent a message to Grace Lin’s website to ask about this and got a response saying that Lin discusses the connection in this video. It’s well worth watching if you’ve got five minutes, and not just because of the Phillips connection.)

****But, remember, more people read it on the home page.

squiggle

New on the Book List:

I have been very lazy about updates. I’ve recently added mini-reviews for the latest (and last) entries for 2019:

The Girl from the Marsh Croft, by Selma Lagerlöf (1908; translated 1910)
Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1916)
Pictures of the Floating World, by Amy Lowell (1919)