Author Archives: Mary Grace McGeehan

About Mary Grace McGeehan

An American in Cape Town. Reading about the world of a century ago, blogging at My Life 100 Years Ago.

Detail from Bertram Cope's Year by Henry Fuller

A Pioneering Gay Novel of 1919

Early this year, I was reading H.L. Mencken’s fiction roundup in the January 1920 issue of The Smart Set in search of a good read. I didn’t have much hope, given Mencken’s generally dim view of the novels of the day.

Smart Set cover, January 1910

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across his review of Henry B. Fuller’s novel Bertram Cope’s Year, which he calls “a very fair piece of writing, as novels go. A bit pizzicato; even a bit distinguished.” I enjoy academic novels, and Mencken described Bertrand Cope’s Year as a comic romp featuring a young college instructor who haplessly endures various townspeople’s attempts to ensnare him into romantic and social entanglements. I Googled the book, expecting to get the usual array of low-quality Amazon reprints.* To my surprise, I found a Wikipedia entry saying that Bertrand Cope’s Year is “perhaps the first American homosexual novel.”

I immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and started reading. I made it about halfway through, but, this being early March, life and COVID intervened and I ended up putting it aside.** When I resumed, it was in the much more palatable form of this attractive annotated edition:

Cover of Bertram Cope's Year by Henry B. Fuller.

Bertram Cope is a 24-year-old instructor and master’s degree student at a Northwestern-like university in the Evanston-like town of Churchton, Illinois. Cope is strikingly handsome; I picture him as a young blond Cary Grant. As soon as he shows up, the entire population of Churchton, male and female, goes into a swoon and sets out to ensnare him. Minerva, a prosperous widow, installs him in her social set and, although clearly pining for him herself, throws her three young artistic protégées in his path. Much sitting in parlors ensues.

Randolph, a middle-aged businessman, schemes to become Bertram’s “mentor,” but, you know, the kind of mentor who moves to a bigger apartment so as to have a more suitable setup in case Bertram comes over for dinner and gets snowed in for the night. (This fails, but he does finagle some skinny-dipping at the Indiana Dunes.)

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, early 20th century

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, ca. 1910-1920 (rootsweb.com)

Meanwhile, all Bertram wants to do is set up housekeeping with his devoted friend Arthur, who’s back home in Wisconsin. When Randolph invites Bertram to accompany him on an overnight trip, Arthur puts the kibosh on it, even though the “fickle” Arthur (Bertram’s word) has been known to go on similar weekend jaunts.

(We’re getting into spoiler territory here, so if you’re planning to read the book, or just find plot summaries tedious, skip down to the photo of Henry Fuller.)

Evanston lifesaving station, 1910.

Evanston Life-Saving Station, 1910 (Chicago Daily News)

Amy, the most determined protégée, takes to stalking Bertram. One day they just happen to meet on the university campus and end up going for a sail. The boat capsizes, the two struggle to the shore, and Amy turns this into a tale of heroism on Bertram’s part even though, in Bertram’s opinion, if anyone did any saving it was Amy. This is the most exciting thing that has happened in Churchton in months, even more exciting than the time when Bertram fainted during one of Minerva’s soirées. Amy starts blathering about “happiness” on their walks, and, without Bertram knowing exactly what happened, they end up engaged.

Arthur, as you can imagine, is NOT happy. Neither are Minerva and Randolph, who conspire to throw a hail-fellow-well-met type named Pearson into Amy’s path. Between that and Bertram’s unavailability to see Amy ever, which even she sees as a red flag, the engagement comes to an end, to Bertram’s huge relief.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois, early 20th century

Bertram and Arthur set up a home together and live in blissful cohabitation, so blissful that it starts raising eyebrows. Their PDAs prompt Minerva’s disabled relative Foster, whose main activity in life is making caustic comments, to recall the time when similar behavior by a newlywed couple in Sarasota prompted an elderly woman to complain that they “brought the manners of the bedchamber into the drawing-room.”

Further complications ensue in the form of Hortense, another of Minerva’s protégées, who makes a play for Bertram by painting his portrait. When Bertram, having learned his lesson from the Amy fiasco, rejects her, she flies into a fury, tears the portrait in half, and tells Bertram that his “preposterous friendship” with Arthur will not last long.

Arthur, meanwhile, has thrown himself into his female part in the campus theatricals.

Their room came to be strown with all the disconcerting items of a theatrical wardrobe. Cope soon reached the point where he was not quite sure that he liked it all, and he began to develop a distaste for Lemoyne’s preoccupation with it. He came home one afternoon to find on the corner of his desk a long pair of silk stockings and a too dainty pair of ladies’ shoes. “Oh, Art!” he protested.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Triangle Club production, Princeton, 1915.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Triangle Club production, Princeton University, 1915

When the big night finally arrives, the townspeople squirm at Arthur’s all-too-convincing female impersonation at first, but his final number brings down the house. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn’t know when to stop, and his post-curtain pass at a male costar who can’t take a joke (if it was one) is met with a whack. No prizes for guessing who gets drummed out of town as a result of this incident.

Bertram, having earned his master’s degree, hightails it for the East Coast, where he has gotten a job at an “important university.” Minerva and Randolph admit defeat, but Carolyn, the third protégée, is in hot pursuit. The story ends with us wondering whether Bertram ends up with her or with Arthur.

“AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR,” contemporary readers call out in unison. Given that Bertram managed to escape Amy’s clutches when she was a) right there in Churchton and b) actually engaged to him, I’m fairly confident that he’ll succeed in giving Carolyn the slip. But this wasn’t such a slam-dunk case in 1919. Once again, I picture Cary Grant’s desperate, trapped expression at the supposedly happy ending of every romantic comedy he starred in.***

Henry B. Fuller, ca. 1893

Who, I wondered, was Henry Fuller? And how did this book come to be published in 1919?

Fuller, it turns out, was a well-established 62-year-old Chicago writer when Bertram Cope’s Year was published. He got his start in his twenties with allegorical travel novels about Italy, which sound heinous but brought him attention among the genteel New England literary set. He then turned to realist novels about his gritty native city. Along the way, he also wrote a play about a young man who commits suicide at the wedding of his former (male) lover.

Fuller also wrote literary criticism for The Dial and other publications. Once I looked up his reviews, I realized that I had read quite a few of them.**** If you want to save yourself the trouble of spending a year reading as if you were living 100 years ago, just take my word for it that all literary criticism, by Fuller and everyone else (except H.L. Mencken), sounds exactly like this snippet from Fuller’s review in The Dial of a book of lectures by Lafcadio Hearne:

Text from an article by Henry Fuller, The Dial, January 17, 1918.

The Dial, January 17, 1918

The depiction of homosexuality in Bertram Cope’s Year is often described as subtle, an argument I have trouble buying unless your definition of subtle is that no one marches down the street waving a rainbow flag. Judging from all the rejections Fuller received, the publishing industry had no trouble understanding what the book was about. It ended up being published, at Fuller’s expense, by a small Chicago publishing house owned by his friend Ralph Fletcher Seymour.

The Bookman headline, Good Novels of Several Kinds, May 1920

The Bookman, May 1920

The conventional wisdom, to the extent that there is conventional wisdom about Bertram Cope’s Year, is that the book was ignored or condemned by critics. However, in addition to Mencken’s write-up, it received favorable or semi-favorable reviews from The Bookman (“the kind of novel which must be enjoyed not for its matter so much as for its quality, its richness of texture and subtlety of atmosphere”), The Booklist (“live enough people and a sense of humor hovering near the surface”), and The Weekly Review (“a mild affair altogether whose sole and sufficient distinction lies in the delicate perfection of its setting forth”). This is a fair amount of press for a book from a small publisher. None of the reviews mention the homosexuality angle. Poor Arthur is nowhere to be seen, and some of the reviews portray Bertram’s desperate flight from Carolyn as a possible budding romance. It wasn’t until Carl Van Vechten published a laudatory essay in 1926 that the true subject of the book was acknowledged.

What was going on here? Did the reviewers just not get it? This seems impossible, but it’s hard, looking back from the knowing present, to see things through the lens of another era.***** Maybe they were just protecting the delicate sensibilities of their readers? But, in that case, why bother to review the book at all?

Title page, Bertram Cope's Year, by Henry B. Fuller, 1919.

HathiTrust Digital Library

It was a moot point in the end. Bertram Cope’s s Year sold very few copies. “My disrelish for the writing-and-publishing game is now absolute,” Fuller wrote to his friend Hamlin Garland in May 1920. ”There seems to be no way for one to get read or paid, so—Shutters up.” Fuller continued writing non-fiction, but he abandoned fiction for almost a decade, before writing one last novel that was published posthumously in 1929.

Fuller fell into obscurity after his death, but Bertram Cope’s Year has found a new life in the 21st century. The book was republished in 1998, with an afterword by Andrew Solomon, and a critical edition (the one I read) was published in 2010.

The assertion made by some (okay, by Wikipedia) that Bertram Cope’s Year is the first gay American novel falls apart upon examination. There is, for example, Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend, published in 1870, about a young Pennsylvania farmer who falls in love with a man who cares for him after a train crash. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s 1906 novel Imre: A Memorandum, is arguably the first American novel to depict an actual gay relationship, although some claim that it doesn’t count because it was published in Europe, where New Jersey-born Prime-Stevenson lived. Alan Dale, the hack drama critic whose play about an unrepentant unwed mother I wrote about a while back, published the gay melodrama A Marriage Below Zero, in 1889, two years after he left Britain for the United States.

Vintage photo, young male couple.

boobob92*******

So I guess the best claim we can make for Bertram Cope’s Year is that it’s the first novel by an American writer that was published in the United States, features a loving gay couple, and doesn’t end in a tragic death. Which is a bit of a mouthful as firsts go, but still one worth celebrating.

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*Don’t get me started on the shady business of print-on-demand. Four-point font! Typos on the cover! The totally wrong book (I’m talking to you, Robert Chambers’ The Tree of Heaven labeled as May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven)!

**Which is what I do with almost every book I start reading on my Kindle in any case.

***I didn’t actually re-watch every Cary Grant romantic comedy to fact-check this assertion, so I’m open to correction here. Still, I do get a “gay man trapped by determined women” vibe from his oeuvre as a whole.

****Among other things, Fuller started a heated debate about whether novels were too long or too short that I came in in the middle of. (No one thought that they were the right length, apparently.)

*****It wasn’t until probably my fourth reading of The Great Gatsby a decade or so ago that it struck me that the scene at the end of the second chapter where Nick is in Myrtle’s neighbor’s apartment was the aftermath of a gay sexual encounter. It seemed so unmistakable that I marveled that I could ever have missed it. I’ll try to remember to put in a link when the copyright expires at the beginning of 2021. If I forget, remind me. (P.S. If you didn’t look at the caption below the photo of the person wearing the hat, go back and check it out!)

******Although I worried a little, given that Bertram, in addition to his fainting episode, was constantly getting sick.

*******This photo was posted on the Flickr site of a collector of vintage postcards who thinks it looks a lot like Bertram and Arthur. I agree!

Banner of 1915 and 1920 magazine covers

1915/1920 Magazine Cover Smackdown: And the Winners Are…

The people have spoken! And the people, it turns out, like athletic, adventurous women and hate scantily clad women.

Let’s back up a minute. In case you haven’t been following along, in my last blog post I asked the people to vote on whether 14 magazines (and two mismatched pairs) had better covers in 1915 or 1920. This was in the context of me being a 1920 crank going on about how things were better in the 1910s. But enough with the explanation…you can check it out yourself.

On to the winners:

1. Vogue

Helen Dryden, September 15, 1915

Helen Dryden, September 1, 1920

This is the first of several matchups where an artist faces off against him/herself. Dryden is a favorite of mine, previously featured in my posts on Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For and Five Inspiring Women of 1919. The winner, which also got my vote, is Dryden’s colorful 1915 cover, which bested her uncharacteristically subdued 1920 cover with 58% of the vote.

2.  Harper’s Bazar

Erte Harper's Bazar cover, September 1915, three women

Erté, September 1915

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, September 1920

Erté, September 1920

Another self-matchup, Erté vs. Erté.* This was inevitable, because Erté, who was one of the Ten 1918 People I’m Thankful For, was Harper’s Bazar’s regular cover artist from 1915 to 1936. I’m thankful that I have a decade and a half of his illustrations to look forward to, but his October 1920 cover wasn’t one of my favorites. Readers agreed, with the 1915 cover winning 59% of the vote.

3. Ladies’ Home Journal

Ladies' Home Journal cover, September 1915, Lester Ralph, woman sitting on naval mine.

Lester Ralph, September 1915

Walter Biggs, September 1920

This boring vs. weird matchup featured Leslie Ralph’s woman sitting on what looks like a German naval mine vs. Walter Biggs’ popular parasol-carrying woman. I was of two minds here but ended up going for the 1920 cover because at least no one was about to blow up. Readers are made of sterner stuff than I am, though, and the 1915 cover won 71% of the vote.

4. Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair cover, September 1915, Rita Senger, woman with sleeping Pierrot.

Rita Senger, September 1915

Warren David Vanity Fair cover, September 1920, naked women dancing.

Warren Davis, September 1920

Rita Senger’s 1915 Vanity Fair cover is my favorite of the bunch, winning my enthusiastic vote against Warren Davis’ frolicking naked women. I admired the first Warren Davis cover I saw, way back toward the beginning of this blog, but I soured on him when I learned that drawing naked women was the only thing he ever did. Readers shared my taste, giving Senger a lopsided 91% victory.

5. The Crisis

The Crisis, September 1920, photo of bust by C. Matey.

Sculpture by C. Matey, September 1915

The Crisis, September 1915, The Colonel of the 8th Regiment.

Unknown artist, September 1920

I was disappointed that both of these covers featured photographs, as opposed to, say, a Frank Walts drawing or a William Edouard Scott painting. I voted, with mixed feelings, for the 1920 cover featuring a sculpture by the mysterious (or, at least, not easily Googleable) C. Matey, which led the polls with 57% of the vote.

6. St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas cover, September 1915, Charles Livingston Bull, children sailing.

Charles Livingston Bull, September 1920

St. Nicholas magazine cover, September 1915, Norman Price, motorcycle stunts.

Norman Price, September 1915

If I could jump into one of these covers, Mary Poppins-style, I’d definitely opt for sailing over watching dangerous motorcycle escapades (both of which apparently require a necktie). But as a cover I went for the eye-popping red and the action of the 1915 cover. I was in a minority here; 55% chose sailing.

7. Cosmopolitan

Cosmpolitan cover, September 1915

Harrison Fisher, September 1915

Cosmopolitan cover, September 1920, Harrison Fisher, woman drinking tea with dog.

Harrison Fisher, September 1920

A Harrison Fisher vs. Harrison Fisher faceoff, with similar young-woman-drinking-something themes. The one with the dog (title: “You Beauty!”) struck me as a bit unsanitary, so (putting aside my resentment over just happening upon it after spending an hour searching for images of women drinking through straws for my Are You H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s Ideal Woman? quiz) I went with the 1915 cover. 62% of readers agreed.

8. Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping cover, September 1920, Coles Phillips fadeaway girl.

Coles Phillips, September 1915

Good Housekeeping cover, Jesse Wilcox Smith, September 1920, little girls hugging in doorway.

Jessie Willcox Smith, September 1920

As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, I adore Coles Phillips, who was Good Housekeeping’s sole cover illustrator for a two-year stretch in the 1910s.** If I had known about him two years ago, My Sad Search for 1918 Love might have ended differently. I don’t adore Jessie Willcox Smith, who was at the vanguard of the cutesification of magazine art (although I do adore her illustration from At the Back of the North Wind featured in the 1919 children’s books holiday shopping guide and her Good Housekeeping New Year’s 1918 cover). 83% of voters agreed with me.***

9. The Masses/The Liberator

The Masses cover, September 1920, Cornelia Barnes, children dancing near organ grinder.

Cornelia Barnes, September 1915

The Liberator, September 1920, Hugo Gellert, boy on flying horse.

Hugo Gellert, September 1920

As I noted in my previous post, The Liberator arose in the ashes of The Masses, which closed after staff members were charged with conspiring to obstruct conscription. I’m a fan of Cornelia Barns, who drew a proto-New Yorker cartoon I loved, and an even bigger fan of Hugo Gellert and his wonderful covers for The Liberator (including its inaugural issue). This isn’t my favorite Gellert, though, and I ended up voting for Barnes. 57% of voters agreed.

10. The Smart Set

Smart Set cover, September 1915, John Held Jr., man in polo clothes with woman.

John Held Jr., September 1915

Smart Set cover, September 1920, Archie Gunn, man and woman on boat.

Archie Gunn, September 1920

The Smart Set is one of the few magazines where what’s inside is consistently better than what’s on the cover. I did like John Held Jr.’s cheery 1915 polo cover; less so the people in the boat who you just know are racist. A lopsided 86% of readers agreed.

11. Photoplay

Photoplay cover, September 1915, Mary Pickford.

Unknown illustrator, September 1915

Photoplay cover, September 1920, Rolf Armstrong, Constance Talmadge.

Rolf Armstrong, September 1920

Movie star vs. movie star. I could have gone for either one of these, and in choosing the 1920 cover I was perhaps slightly biased by my fondness for Rolf Armstrong, although this isn’t one of my favorites.**** I was in the minority here, with 55% of readers choosing the 1915 cover by an unknown illustrator. (I originally credited the 1915 illustration to Anita Stewart, who, an alert reader pointed out, is actually the subject. Kicking myself!)

12. La Vie Parisienne

La Vie Parisienne cover, September 25, 1915, woman shooting arrow.

Unknown artist, September 25, 1915

La Vie Parisienne, September 18, 1920, woman playing golf with caddy.

Unknown artist, September 18, 1920

I lucked out in having two La Vie Parisienne covers that are suitable for a family blog. I prefer the clear lines of the 1915 archer, and so did a whopping 90% of readers.

13. Life

Life cover, September 8, 1915

Emery, September 8, 1915

Life cover, Rea Irvin, September 23, 1920, woman on throne.

Rea Irvin, September 23, 1920

I’m a big fan of future New Yorker illustrator Rea Irvin, but not so much of his 1920 Life cover (although it bears closer scrutiny since the picture seems to be embroidered). I have no idea who Emery is, but his or her whimsical take on hat fashions is a lot of fun. 76% of readers agreed.

14. Saturday Evening Post

Saturday Evening Post cover, Charles Livingston Bull, September 18, 1915, owl in front of sun.

Charles Livingston Bull, September 18, 1915

Saturday Evening post cover, September 25, 1920, Alfred E. Orr, man painting name on mailbox.

Alfred E. Orr, September 25, 1920

I had second thoughts about some of my choices, none more than this one. I voted for Alfred E. Orr’s man painting a mailbox when clearly the correct choice is Charles Livingston Bull’s owl. A consequential choice, since there was a dead heat here.

15. Metropolitan

Metropolitan cover, September 1920, Edna Crompton, woman serving at tennis.

Edna Crompton, September 1920

Metropolitan cover, September 1915, young woman in straw hat.

Unknown artist, September 1915

Despite my 1910s leanings, I’m not blind to the ways that the 1920s are better, including more women being portrayed as being physically active as opposed to standing around with their clothes falling off. 90% of readers agreed.

16. The Best of the Rest

Red Cross cover, September 1920, Gerrit Beneker, worker in front of skyline.

Gerrit Beneker, September 1920

Golfers magazine, September 1920, man swinging golf club while woman watches.

Unknown artist, September 1915

For the last matchup, I paired up two covers that didn’t have a counterpart in the other year but that I couldn’t bear to leave out. My favorite, and that of 75% of readers, was Gerrit Beneker’s 1920 builder on the cover of Red Cross (the magazine’s second to last issue).

And the winning cover is…

Vanity Fair cover, September 1915, Rita Senger, woman with sleeping Pierrot.

Rita Senger, September 1915

I’m new at this polling business, and if I had it to do again (which I no doubt will, given how much fun it was this time) I would allow everyone to vote for their favorite cover of all. As it is, I’ll have to go with the cover that had the highest vote percentage. This isn’t really fair because it may just reflect the weakness of the competition, but so be it.

All caveats aside, I’m delighted to announce that the winner is Rita Senger’s wonderful Vanity Fair cover, which, as noted, is also my favorite. It edged out the 1915 La Vie Parisienne cover by a few tenths of a percentage point. Next time I write about illustrators I love, I’m going to write about Senger.

And the winning year is…

Saturday Evening Post January 9, 1915 cover, J.C. Leyendecker, New Year's baby brushing away military hats.

J.C Leyendecker

1915 was the overwhelming winner, beating out 1920 in twelve of the matchups, with three victories for 1920 and one tie. Interestingly, given that it was my grousing about the decline of magazine illustration that spurred the contest, I voted for 1920 six times, twice as often as the average reader.

So it’s been officially, objectively proven: the 1910s rule!

And the winning reader is…

Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, by Deborah Kalb

…Allison Silberberg, who has received a free copy of Deborah Kalb’s wonderful middle-grade novel George Washington and the Return of the Magic Hat. Allison’s favorite cover is the Red Cross “The Builder” cover, which makes a lot of sense given the former Alexandria, Virginia, mayor’s commitment to building communities. You can find Allison on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

And the winning new (to me) blogging technology is…

Readership during the week the Magazine Cover Smackdown was published shattered previous records, even when taking into account some iffy botlike behavior on the day before publication. So clearly readers like polls! Judging from the low number of votes as a percentage of views, though, readers are not as fond of voting in polls as they are of reading them.

That’s fine! It’s just a blog poll! It’s not like the future of America is at stake!

Which is not something that can be said for the other election that’s going on right now. So, as we celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage,***** make sure to

League of Women Voters poster, 1920, women looking at Capitol.

League of Women Voters poster, 1920

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*Estimated amount of time that I have spent over the course of this blog putting the accent mark in Erté’s name (or, rather, pseudonym): two hours.

**For more Fadeaway Girls, check out my Pinterest board.

***Not that I’m judging you 17 percenters. In fairness to Smith, this is a beautifully illustrated cover—I love the green doors and the shadows.

****That’s Armstrong’s Metropolitan cover on the blog banner, unless you’re reading this in the future when I have updated the banner, in which case here’s the old one, featuring 1919 covers. It was a thing of beauty (future me says), and I miss it so much!

*****Of course, it would take decades more of struggle before African-American men and women’s right to vote was fully honored throughout the country.

Rodin, Young Woman Reading an Illustrated Journal, ca. 1880

You Be the Judge: The 1915/1920 Magazine Cover Smackdown

An occupational hazard of reading as if you were living a hundred years ago is that you start turning into a curmudgeon. “Things were so much better in the 1910s,” you (okay: I) grumble on a regular basis, apropos of 1920. Not everything, of course—the 1910s had the war and the Spanish influenza, for starters, and with starters like that there’s no point racking your brain for additional examples. But some things definitely got worse.

The font at The Smart Set, for example. What were H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan thinking?

Headline "Novels, Chiefly Bad," H.L. Mencken, Smart Set, August 1919

Smart Set, August 1919

Headline, "Books More or Less Amusing," H.L. Mencken, Smart Set, August 1920

Smart Set, August 1920

Dorothy Parker was fired from Vanity Fair in January 1920, so good-bye to her theater reviews

Excerpt from Dorothy Parker theater review, Vanity Fair, August 1919

“The First Shows of Summer,” Vanity Fair, August 1919

and hate poems.

From "Our Office: A Hate Poem," Dorothy Parker, Vanity Fair

“Our Office: A Hate Poem,” Vanity Fair, May 1919

And then there are the magazine covers. Every time I’ve thought about doing a magazine cover post in the last few months, I’ve found some dispiriting examples,

Modern Priscilla cover, woman wearing scarf

Good Housekeeping cover, April 1920, girl wearing bonnet

Maclean's magazine, March 15, 1920, womn carrying calla lilies

thought wistfully about the good old days,*

Crisis cover, April 1918, Willian Edouard Scott, black couple on wagon.

William Edouard Scott

Vogue Helen Dryden cover, February 15, 1918, woman looking in mirror.

Helen Dryden

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, May 1918

Erté

and given up.

I wondered sometimes whether I was being fair. Maybe, like so many people, I was longing for a golden age that only existed in my mind. But how to measure such a thing?

And then inspiration struck. The magazines could duke it out, mano a mano, 1920 vs. the 1910s. I chose 1915 as the opponent, a nice round number but not so far back that it’s super-old-timey like this 1910 Ladies’ Home Journal cover:

Ladies' Home Journal, September 15, 1910, woman in big hat.

As I assembled the covers, it dawned on me that maybe I still wasn’t being fair. What was to stop me from picking all the 1915 covers to prove a point? I pondered this for a while, and then the answer came to me: the people!

Normally, I’m very limited as to what I can do on this blog because I’m a wordpress.com member, meaning that WordPress hosts my blog as well as being the platform for designing it, as opposed to the far cooler wordpress.org members, whose blogs are hosted by other companies so they can get all sorts of plug-ins that don’t run on wordpress.com.** But one thing that wordpress.com lets you do now is run polls. And what’s more fun than a poll?***

So I leave it to you, the people, to decide, for each of the 16 magazines below, whether its September 1915 cover (top) or its September 1920 cover (bottom) is better. (In several cases, as it turns out, artists are competing against themselves.) The polls will stay open for a week, and the winners will be announced in early October. If the covers I’m rooting for don’t win, I promise to accept your verdict graciously. Because that’s what democracy is all about!

And, in case you find your energy flagging, there’s a prize at the end.

1. Vogue

Helen Dryden, September 15, 1915

Helen Dryden, September 1, 1920

 

2. Harper’s Bazar

Erte Harper's Bazar cover, September 1915, three women

Erté

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, September 1920

Erté

 

3. Ladies’ Home Journal

Lester Ralph

Walter Biggs

 

4. Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair cover, September 1915, Rita Senger, woman with sleeping Pierrot.

Rita Senger

Warren David Vanity Fair cover, September 1920, naked women dancing.

Warren Davis

 

5. The Crisis

The Crisis, September 1915, The Colonel of the 8th Regiment.

The Crisis, September 1920, photo of bust by C. Matey.

Sculpture by C. Matey

 

6. St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas cover, Norman Price, September 1915, motorcycle jump.

Norman Price

St. Nicholas cover, September 1915, Charles Livingston Bull, children sailing.

Charles Livingston Bull

 

7. Cosmopolitan

Cosmpolitan cover, September 1915, Harrison Fisher, young woman sipping milkshake in red hat.

Harrison Fisher

Cosmopolitan cover, September 1920, Harrison Fisher, woman having tea with dog.

Harrison Fisher

 

8. Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping cover, September 1920, Coles Phillips fadeaway girl.

Coles Phillips

Good Housekeeping cover, Jesse Wilcox Smith, September 1920, little girls hugging in doorway.

Jessie Willcox Smith

 

9. The Masses/The Liberator****

The Masses cover, September 1920, Cornelia Barnes, children dancing near organ grinder.

Cornelia Barnes

The Liberator, September 1920, Hugo Gellert, boy on flying horse.

Hugo Gellert

 

10. The Smart Set

Smart Set cover, September 1915, John Held Jr., man in polo clothes with woman.

John Held Jr.

Smart Set cover, September 1920, man talking to woman on boat.

Archie Gunn*****

 

11. Photoplay

Photoplay cover, September 1915, Mary Pickford, Anita Stewart cover design.

Photoplay cover, September 1920, Rolf Armstrong, Constance Talmadge.

Rolf Armstrong

 

12. La Vie Parisienne

La Vie Parisienne cover, September 25, 1915, woman shooting arrow.

La Vie Parisienne, September 18, 1920, woman playing golf with caddy.

 

13. Life

Life cover, September 8, 1915, Emery, women with long-feathered hats.

Emery

Life cover, September 23, 1920, Rea Irvin, woman on throne.

Rea Irvin

 

14. Saturday Evening Post

Saturday Evening Post cover, September 18, 1915, Charles Livingston Bull, owl in front of orange sun.

Charles Livingston Bull

Saturday Evening post cover, September 25, 1920, Alfred E. Orr, man painting name on mailbox.

Alfred E. Orr

 

15. Metropolitan

Metropolitan cover, September 1915, young woman in straw hat.

Metropolitan cover, September 1920, Edna Crompton, woman serving at tennis.

Edna Crompton

 

16. The Best of the Rest

There were two covers that didn’t have a counterpart in the other year but that were too good to leave out, so I’ll let them face off.

Golfers magazine, September 1920, man swinging golf club while woman watches.

Red Cross cover, September 1920, Gerrit Beneker, worker in front of skyline.

Gerrit Beneker

 

That’s it, the hard work of voting is over. Now for the prize!

Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat, by Deborah Kalb

My friend and fellow blogger Deborah Kalb’s book Thomas Jefferson and the Return of the Magic Hat is being published this week. It’s the third in a series of books about the adventures of a group of fifth-grade friends who travel back in time and meet America’s founding presidents. The first three readers who let me know which magazine cover was their favorite will receive a free copy. You can post a comment below or drop me a line through the Contact page.******

I’ve read the book and highly recommend it—it’s a lot of fun but at the same time it engages seriously with the issue of slavery. As the U.S. prepares to choose its next president, the timing couldn’t be better. So hurry up and vote!

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*I know, apples and oranges. But I’m describing a mental state, so bear with me.

**Like PUTTING PHOTOS SIDE BY SIDE, FOR EXAMPLE, WORDPRESS!

***Besides a quiz, I mean.

****The Masses, a socialist monthly, ceased publication in 1917 after editor Max Eastman and several staff members were charged with conspiring to obstruct conscription. Eastman and his sister Chrystal Eastman founded The Liberator in 1918.

*****Which I am very proud to tell you I deciphered from this:

Illegibile signature, Smart Set cover, September 1920.

******For readers living outside the United States, I’ll do my best to get a copy to you, but I can’t make any promises.

My Dream 1920 Summer Vacation

My years of reading as if I were living 100 years ago haven’t turned me into much of a nostalgist. In general, whatever is awful in the early 21st century was even worse in the early 20th century. Back then, the United States was a racist, sexist, war-scarred country. The white supremacist violence of the Red Summer of 1919 was far worse than what we’re experiencing now. We lost half a million more lives to the Spanish influenza than we’ve lost so far to COVID, among a population a third the size of today’s.

Poster of man next to devil with text "Halt the epidemic! Stop spitting everybody," 1918.

Poster, United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation, 1918 (Free Library of Philadelphia)

Not that I’m minimizing what we’re going through now. We’re supposed to be better than our predecessors, and the fact that we can even draw parallels between that terrible time and our own shows that we haven’t done a very good job of learning lessons from the past.

Still, as this awful summer crawls to an end, I’m starting to feel like I wouldn’t mind spending some time in 1920.

Women have the vote!

League of Women Voters poster, 1920, women looking at Capitol.

League of Women Voters poster, 1920

Corsets are going out of fashion!

Polly Anna underwear ad, women in underwear with parrot, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

The pandemic is over, and people are free to go places and do things!

Kodak ad, man and woman next to car, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

Sounds nice, doesn’t it? The perfect destination for an imaginary vacation. You can come too!

A house at the seaside is just the thing, wouldn’t you agree?

Columbia Grafonola ad, people at beach house listening to gramophone, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

We’ll pack our clothes,

Lux soap ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920, woman packing clothes.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

making sure not to forget to bring along our white shoes,

2 in 1 shoe polish ad, woman's foot in white shoes, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

or our maid, whose greatest joy in life is cleaning them.

Bon Ami ad, maid cleaning white shoes, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

We’ll round up the kids,

Tom Sawyer clothes ad, boy waving to people having picnic, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

but not the scary-looking ones,

Royal Baking Powder ad, children eating cake, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

Royal Baking Powder ad, children eating cake, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

and set out overland in the Overland.

Overland car ad, family in car in countryside, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

Whew! That was quite a journey.

Vode Kid shoe ad, couple resting in living room, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

I need to freshen up.

Fairy soap ad, woman drying herself with towel, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

I brush my hair,*

Prophelactic Penetrator hairbrush ad, man brushing hair, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

sprinkle on a little talcum powder,**

Williams' Talcum Powder ad, woman in dressing room with man in doorway, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

dab on some Odorono,

Odorono deodorant ad, "The Most Humiliating Moment of My Life," Ladies' Home Journal, 1920

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

and I’m all set to go.

Of course we brought along the Grafonola.

Columbia Granfola ad, man bringing Granfola to summer house, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

Or the Victrola. Whatever! It’s party time!

Victrola ad, people dancing at party, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

We’ll go swimming

As-The-Petals talcum powder ad, women swimming in ocean, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

Mulsfield Cocoanut Oil Shampoo ad, woman with long hair looking at reflection in ocean, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

and play games

Goody Middies blouse ad, girls in athletic outfits, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

and watch fireworks

Vivaudou Maus fragrance ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920, woman looking at lanterns and fireworks.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

and go on picnics

Pillsbury's flour ad, people at picnic with cakes, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

and Sunday drives.

Overland car ad, family riding with the top down, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

If it gets too hot, we’ll just loll around in fetching outfits.

Indian Head cloth ad, women sitting on hill, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

Lux soap ad, women standing on hill, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

Congoleum linoleum ad, women sitting on porch, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

The fresh air will do the children a world of good

Slipova clothes for children ad, children playing outdoors, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

and maybe wean them off their weird obsession with bread.

Fleischmann's Yeast ad, boy calling friends, loaf of bread, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1920

Fleischmann's Yeast ad, child reaching for bread, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

And of course it wouldn’t be summer without some romance.

Vode shoe ad, man in evening clothes staring at woman's foot, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

Enjoy it while you can! All too soon we’ll be cleaning up the summer house

Old Dutch Cleanser ad, can of cleanser on linoleum floor, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1920

(just kidding, that’s the maid’s job),

Nashua Wood Blankets ad, maid hanging blankets on line while children fold, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1920

heading back home,

Overland car ad, car driving through countryside, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

and sending the kids off to school.

Compton Corduroy ad, boy arriving at school, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

Kalburnie Zephyr gingham ad, girls with teacher at school, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1920

But it’s nice to get away for a while, isn’t it?

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*I try to keep this a family blog, but oh 1920, you test me sometimes.

**A very little, since it’s full of asbestos.

Are You H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan’s Ideal Woman? A Quiz

Hi, everyone! It’s been a while. For a few weeks I was working full-time and also taking this online course at MIT, which taxed my ability to maintain a basic level of sanitation, let alone write a blog. Now that I’ve switched to part-time I have quite a backlog,* but if a post sits around in my head for too long it starts to feel like homework, and it’s Fourth of July weekend and who wants to do homework?

Cover, Smart Set, July 1920, man and woman in bathing suits.

Smart Set, July 1920 (modjourn.org)

Luckily, 1920 came through, in the form of an article by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in the July 1920 issue of Smart Set called “Répétition Générale.” There are often articles called “Répétition Générale” in Smart Set, consisting of Mencken and Nathan, the magazine’s co-editors (and literary critic and drama critic respectively), going on about whatever they feel like.**

This time, what they feel like going on about is The Ideal Women. Italics theirs, followed by a list of 57 qualities this paragon possesses.

“Yay!” I said. “Quiz time!”

Longtime readers might be thinking, well, she has some nerve, given that I wrote an entire blog post on how Mencken is not my romantic ideal, and another one rejecting Nathan as a possible suitor. But just because you don’t love someone doesn’t mean you don’t want them to love you. So I got out my pen to tally my score. You can follow along, marking your answers as true or false. Because one can only endure so much perfection, I pared the 57 questions down to 25. There’s a scoring chart at the end.

Here goes!***

Smart Set headline, Repetition Generale, H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, July 1920.

The Ideal Woman—

1. In writing a letter, she never adds an apostrophe to every word ending with S, and, when she makes a blot, never undertakes facetiously to comment on it.

TRUE. I never, ever get apostrophes wrong. Admittedly I don’t make many ink blots these days, but due to the ferocity with which I oppose misplaced apostrophes I will give myself full credit here.****

2. Upon deliberately touching a man’s foot under the table, she never makes a pretence of having believed it was the leg of the table and of ejaculating, “Oh, sorry.”

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

Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920

TRUE. Side note: I think Mencken and Nathan are deluding themselves here.

3. After eating a particularly sticky piece of candy, she doesn’t place her hand on one’s shoulder under the guise of a sudden burst of affection.

Tootsie Roll ad, Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1920, woman putting candy in mouth.

Saturday Evening Post, May 22, 1920

TRUE. Because I’m not five years old.

4. If she desires to say “I love you,” she says it in English and doesn’t go in for “je t’aime.”

A Dance in the Country, Auguste Renoir, 1883, couple dancing.

A Dance in the Country, Auguste Renoir, 1883

TRUE.

5. She can drink a lemonade or an orangeade, a gin daisy, a milk punch or a mint julep through a straw without making a noise like the last quart of water running out of the bath-tub when she gets to the bottom of the glass.

October 1914 Coca-Cola calendar, woman drinking through straw.

prices4antiques.com

TRUE. See #3.

6. She never makes use of such phrases as “yes indeedy.”

TRUE. As far as I can recall I have never in my life said “Yes indeedy.”

7. She signs her name simply and doesn’t put a bow-knot with two dots underneath it below the signature.

TRUE. Viz:*****

Signature "Mary Grace McGeehan" in library hand.

8. Her handbag contains just and only such articles as she needs, and isn’t packed full of two month’s old streetcar transfers, tops of pill boxes, keys the identity of which she has long forgotten, addresses of dressmakers long since deceased, cigar bands with sentimental histories, and a number of archaeological fuzz-covered salted almonds.

FALSE. It’s only because Coronavirus has brought my handbag-carrying days to a temporary halt that you are not being subjected to an inventory or, worse, a photograph.

9. When tiffing with one over the telephone and at a loss for an appropriate retort, she never tries to gain time by resorting to the subterfuge of clicking the hook up and down and, blaming it on Central, exclaiming, “Isn’t that ma-ddening?”

Women at C&P Telephone Exchange, Washington, D.C., ca. 1920, Herbert French.

C&P Telephone Exchange, Washington, D.C., ca. 1920 (Herbert E. French)

FALSE. I was going to give myself this one until I remembered the time back in the eighties when, desperate to shake off a cluelessly persistent admirer, I unplugged the phone in mid-sentence, and then blamed the phone company when he called back.

10. It is possible for her to pucker up her lips and whistle without imparting to her face the aspect of a dried-up lemon.

FALSE. I can’t whistle so am thankfully spared the dried-up lemon test.

11. She is able to find the telephone number of John Smith & Co. without first looking through all the B’s, M’s, and P’s.

New York telephone directory listings, 1920.

New York Telephone directory listings, 1920 ( Bell Telephone News, Volume 9, Number 9, April 1920)

TRUE. (UPDATE 7/5/2020: Hey, I know one of these guys! The last person on the list, Walter C. Arensberg, was a would-be poet and noted modern art collector. I made fun of one of his poems here.)

12. Entertaining a male guest in her home, she is able imperturbably to observe a spark fall from the latter’s cigarette without following it with her eyes and making sure that it doesn’t burn the carpet.

H. L. Mencken caricature by McKee Barclay, 1920 (Digital Maryland)

FALSE. Okay, it’s their ideal, but “willingness to risk having your house catch on fire to accommodate my sloppy habits” is pushing it.

13. She is able to pass the windows of a man’s club-house without looking in.

Photograph of the Townsend house, now the Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., 1915.

Townsend House, now the Cosmos Club, Washington, D.C., 1915, Francis Benjamin Johnson (Library of Congress)

TRUE. Granted, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities lately, but I lived not far from the Cosmos Club in D.C. before it went coed in 1988, and I never tried to peek inside.

14. When in a theater, she doesn’t give birth to a look of annoyance when someone (who has paid for it and has a perfect right to it) comes and takes the seat next to her upon which she has placed her hat.

Theater audience, Plaza Theatre, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, 1920.

Plaza Theatre, Geelong, Victoria, Australia, ca. 1920 (Museums Victoria)

TRUE. But I’m lucky this is about theaters, not trains.

15. She is able to walk through one of the poor tenement districts and observe a small child without remarking that the child looks as if it didn’t get enough to eat.

Lower East Side, New York, street scene, ca. 1915.

Lower East Side, ca. 1915 (Library of Congress)

TRUE.

16. When, in an elevator, an operator calls out the sixth floor, at which she desires to get out, she gets out without asking the operator whether it is the sixth floor.

Men tipping hats at woman going into elevator, from the John Lloyd film High and Dizzy, 1920.

Still from “High and Dizzy,” 1920

FALSE. Although with me it’s more a case of the door opening, people starting to get out, and me saying, “Oh, wait, is this six?”

17. She is able to play a sentimental song on a piano without trying to sing it.

Sheet music, I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time, man and woman walking past apple tree, 1920.

Sheet music, 1920 (indianahistory.org)

FALSE. First of all, there’s my inability to play a sentimental song on a piano, period. But there’s also my desire to sing along with whatever music is playing under whatever circumstance, which I often, but not often enough, manage to suppress.

18. She has the kind of lips that look permanently as if they had just said “if.”

FALSE. Although be careful what you wish for:

Photograph

Me when I just said “if”

Me when I didn’t just say “if”

19. She never asks one to explain to her just what it is that causes the illumination on fireflies.

Erté Harper's Bazar cover, May 1918

Erté, May 1918

TRUE. The master****** of my house in college was one of the world’s foremost experts on bioluminescence, and I never even asked him that. Although that’s a bad example, since I went through college with the extremely misguided policy of never asking anyone in a position of authority anything.

20. She never has her photograph taken showing her looking wistfully at a lily.

Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas, Henri Matisse, 1913.

Calla Lilies, Irises and Mimosas, Henri Matisse, 1913

FALSE. When I lived in Cambodia, this was the default photographic pose for women.

21. She has never read Laurence Hope’s “India Love Lyrics.”

Passage from "India's Love Lyrics" by Laurence Hope.

From “India’s Love Lyrics,” by Laurence Hope, 1902

TRUE. Although naturally I had to check it out, and if this passage is anything to go by, it’s pretty steamy by ca. 1900 standards.

22. When a phonograph starts playing a swinging fox-trot, she is able to sit still and behave herself instead of standing up and vouchsafing a movement or two symbolic of her gracefulness and irrepressible gypsy blood.

Sheet music for The Vamp, 1919, woman with flower in hair.

Leo Feist Inc., 1919 (National Museum of American History)

FALSE. See #17.

23. When lunching and shown the tray of French pastry, she is able to make her selection at once, without rolling her eye lingeringly around the platter three or four times.

Illustration of pastries from The Book of Cakes, 1904.

The Book of Cakes, T. Percy Lewis and A.G. Bromley, 1904

FALSE. I see no need whatsoever to justify myself here.

24. There is in her family no rich relative of whom she is very proud but to whom, by way of screening the pride, she is in the habit periodically of alluding in derogatory terms.

Publicity photo of Irene Noblette, also known as Irene Ryan, 1930.

Publicity photo of Irene Ryan, 1930 (beverlyhillbillies.fandom.com)

TRUE. Irene Ryan, best known as Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, was my grandfather’s cousin’s wife. I have never in my life said a word against her.*******

25. She has at no time in her life evinced any curiosity to see Chinatown.

FALSE. I have, in fact, evinced so much curiosity about Asia as to move not only to Cambodia but also to Laos. Here I am at the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khuong, Laos, in 2008.

Plain of Jars, Xiang Khoang, Laos

That’s it! Time to tally up your scores.

21-25: You are silent film star LILLIAN GISH, with whom Nathan was desperately in love, but who turned down his many marriage proposals.********

Head shot of Lillian Gish, ca. 1919.

Lillian Gish, ca. 1919

16-20: You are writer and college professor SARA HAARDT, whom Mencken married in 1930, when he was 49 and she was 32. She was in poor health at the time of their marriage and died five years later.

Sara Haardt Mencken, wife of H.L. Mencken, 1919.

Sara Haardt Mencken, 1919

11-15: You are Mencken’s longtime lover MARION BLOOM, of whom he wrote in a letter to her sister (!), “Like all other right-thinking gals she wants a husband…For me to marry her would be sheer insanity. The first time she began her childish nonsense about Kant, Hegel, materialism, etc., I’d walk out of the house and never come back.”

Marion Bloom, lover of H.L. Mencken, date unknown, from In Defense of Marion.

Marion Bloom, date unknown

1-10. You are a PROVINCIAL SCHOOLMA’AM, a SUPERSTITIOUS BLUESTOCKING, a SUNDAY SCHOOL-TEACHING VIRGIN, or any of the other terms that Mencken hurled at women, real and imagined, who didn’t share his taste in literature. Although, given the wording of the questions, you’re more likely to be one of the less intellectual members of the Ziegfeld Follies chorus.

I got a 15, so I’m a Marion, one point away from being a Sara. That’s fine with me. They both seem like decent people, dubious taste in men aside. But don’t worry, whatever your score, there’s no chance whatsoever that Mencken or Nathan will call you up, forcing you to cut off the line and blame Central.

Have a safe and happy July 4 weekend, everyone!

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*Including, as I tweeted, a post about the (arguably) first gay American novel, which I didn’t finish in time for LGBT Pride month but will get to sometime. (Except that, oops, I just invoked the promised post curse.)

**Must be nice, I thought reflexively, until I remembered that I don’t exactly have a lot of editorial restrictions here.

***As always, men are welcome to play along! You’re at an unfair advantage, though.

****Apostrophized plurals are a particular scourge in South Africa, where I live most of the time, because in Afrikaans you put an apostrophe before the S when a word ends with a vowel (e.g. foto’s), and this spills over into English.

*****This isn’t my real handwriting–it’s a not completely successful effort at library hand. I don’t think signature forgery is much of a thing anymore, but best to be on the safe side.

******A title that was, amazingly, only retired four years ago. We used to actually call the person “Master So-and-So.”

*******I learned just now that she and her husband Tim Ryan were a well-known vaudeville duo, and that they divorced in 1942.

********And, according to some sources, dumped him when she found out he was Jewish.

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!

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*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 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

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*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!

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*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!

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*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.