Tag Archives: George Jean Nathan

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!

squiggle

*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.

My Sad Search for 1918 Love

After almost a year in 1918, I have yet to find a decent man.

If I were gay, I’d have it made—this was the golden age of (if not for) lesbian women. Amy Lowell! Willa Cather! Little Review editor Margaret Anderson! Dancer Maud Allan! Plus lots of probablys like Jane Addams and Edna Ferber. But no, I’m stuck with men.

Portrait photograph of Walter Lippmann, 1914.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Back in January, I checked out two prospects*, H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. Mencken’s denunciation of American Puritanism and hypocrisy appealed to me, but then he started going on about the Jews and [n-word] republics and I was over him. Lippmann seemed stodgy at first, but he won me over by sneaking a bunch of double-entendres into a sober discussion on prostitution in his 1912 book A Preface to Politics.

But then he disappeared, as seemingly good men often do. Having left the New Republic to head up the War Department’s propaganda office in Paris, he was almost invisible in 1918. The only traces of him I could find (aside from a swipe from Mencken about his “sonorous rhapsodies”) were two New York Times articles from right before the armistice about an operation he was running to drop leaflets over Germany.

New York Times headline beginning Germans Impressed by our Propaganda, November 9, 1918.

New York Times, November 9, 1918

So my search continued. After ruling out men who

I was left with ten men worth a closer look.

T.S. Eliot

Portrait photograph of T.S. Eliot, 1919.

T.S. Eliot (E.O. Hopp, 1919)

T.S. Eliot was my first 1918 love, way back in the eighties, when the internet wasn’t invented so people had to entertain themselves by memorizing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Or maybe that was just me. You can disturb MY universe any time, T.S., I would say to myself. Even then, though, there were warning signs. Like how in the very next poem he’s hanging out with an older woman and wondering if he would have a right to smile if she died. But what can I say? I was twenty-two.

As I read more Eliot, and learned more about him, disillusionment set in. For a lot of reasons, but the anti-semitism alone would have been enough. It’s evident already in 1918, in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” published in the September 1918 issue of The Little Review.***

Good-bye, T.S.!

George Jean Nathan

Portrait photograph of George Jean Nathan.

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

If Mencken wasn’t the guy for me, what about George Jean Nathan, his best pal and Smart Set co-editor, who was also the preeminent drama critic of his time? Smart and funny and urbane, and an excellent source of theater tickets.

Digging around to find out whether he shared Mencken’s anti-semitism, I learned that he was part Jewish himself—and that he went to great lengths to hide this. Which would be a deal-breaker today, but those were different times. Case in point: movie star Lilian Gish, whom Nathan was madly in love with, supposedly broke up with him when she learned of his Jewish roots.

But have you seen All About Eve? If so, do you remember the poisonous middle-aged critic who was squiring around 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe? Turns out he was based on Nathan.

Good-bye, George!

Alan Dale

Photograph of Alan Dale and his daughter on a ship, 1900.

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

More than anything else I’ve written about this year, the story of Alan Dale’s play The Madonna of the Future has stuck with me. A Broadway play about a society woman who becomes a single mother by choice and acts like it’s no big deal? In 1918? How could this be? (Well, it wasn’t for long—facing obscenity complaints, the play closed after a month or so.) I was intrigued. Who was this Alan Dale person?

The hackiest of Broadway hacks, as it turns out. According to Nathan, the British-born Hearst drama critic (real name Alfred Cohen) perpetrated

the sort of humor…whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

I couldn’t be with someone who said “bong-tong.” Plus, might the author of the first gay-themed novel in the English language, which Dale also was, possibly be gay?****

Good-bye, Alan!

W.E.B. Du Bois

Portrait photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918.

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Du Bois was a brilliant thinker and a wonderful writer and his magazine The Crisis is one of my favorite discoveries of 1918. But, the world being what it was in 1918, this wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, he intimidates the hell out of me.

Good-bye, W.E.B.!

H.G. Wells

Photograph of H.G. Wells, ca. 1918.

H.G. Wells, ca. 1918

Wells was the alpha male of the British literary scene, regarded as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of his day. It would no doubt astonish a 1918 person to learn that he would be known in the future primarily as a science fiction writer.

As a romantic partner, though? Bad news! Married to his cousin, he was always sleeping with other women, including a Soviet spy and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Who at least could be relied on not to get pregnant, unlike 26-year-old writer Rebecca West and the daughter of one of his Fabian friends, both of whom bore him children.*****

Good-bye, H.G.!

James Hall

Photograph of James Hall in military uniform smoking a cigarette, 1917.

James Hall, 1917

James Hall lied and said he was Canadian to get into World War I, was caught and got kicked out, joined the American branch of the French air force, and was shot down just after he was finally able to fly under American colors. He was feared dead but turned out to have been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Polynesia and co-wrote, among other books, Mutiny on the Bounty.

A cool guy, but I’m not into the swashbuckling type.

Good-bye, Jimmy!

Christopher Morley

Portrait photograph of Christopher Morley sitting at a table, ca. 1918.

The Bookman, February 1918

A prolific young literary man-about-town, Morley published the popular novel Parnassus on Wheels and a book of poetry called Songs for a Little House in 1917 and an essay collection in 1918. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He married young, stayed married, and never got up to any shenanigans that I know of.

On the other hand, this is how he wrote about his wife:

Text of poem The Young Mother, beginning, Of what concern are wars to her, or treaties broken on the seas?

Songs for a Little House

I would die.

Good-bye, Christopher!

Harvey Wiley

Photograph of Harvey Wiley sitting at desk, ca. 1900.

Harvey Wiley, ca. 1900

Harvey Wiley fought against toxic preservatives in foods and was a driving force in the creation of the FDA. He’s one of my 1918 heroes.

Most of the badmouthing I’ve read about Wiley has broken down on examination. It’s been said that he thought women were stupid, but I haven’t found any evidence.****** He’s been called a eugenicist, but the main case for the prosecution is him saying in Good Housekeeping that there’s no better genetic stock than Scots-Irish, which I think was just him being funny because that’s his background. (This is, in any case, pretty mild as eugenics goes.) I’ll have to wait until 2019 rolls around and I can read his new biography to get the lowdown.

In the meantime, though, there’s this: if you’re the kind of guy who, at age 55, is so taken with your 22-year-old secretary that after she leaves you carry her picture around in your watch for ten years until you run into her on a streetcar and marry her, you’re probably not the guy for me.

Good-bye, Harvey!

Louis Untermeyer

Photograph of Louis Untermeyer in silhouette with pince-nez, ca. 1910-15.

Louis Untermeyer, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

Untermeyer is one of those 1918 people I remember from when I was growing up, the editor of pretty much every literary anthology I came across. In 1918, he was all over the place, writing criticism for The Dial and The New Republic and poetry for The Smart Set and many other publications. He’s like a non-smarmy Christopher Morley. His wife, Jean Starr Untermeyer, was also a poet. I thought I might have found my man.

Then I looked into his life. He and Jean divorced in 1926, then he married someone else, then he and Jean got married again in 1929 but divorced in 1930. Then he married a judge named Esther Antin, and they lasted for over a decade, but then he got a Mexican divorce. She was presumably the wife who said in a lawsuit that he was, at 63, “still an inveterate anthologist, collecting wives with an eye always open for new editions.” His last marriage was to a much younger Seventeen magazine editor who wrote a book about their cat.

Good-bye, Louis!

William Carlos Williams

Photograph of William Carlos Williams, 1921.

William Carlos Williams, 1921

And now for the one who broke my heart.

William Carlos Williams seemed like the ideal man. A groundbreaking poet AND a successful pediatrician. From New Jersey, like me. Part Puerto Rican, so I could practice my Spanish!

We even had a meet-cute story: In an early post, I trashed his foray into Cubist poetry. Kind of like H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, who met after she panned a book of his, except without the part where she immediately gets pregnant and they don’t admit to their son for quite a while that they’re his parents.

It was the 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! that made me fall in love. In “Danse Russe,” he dances around naked in his study, admiring his butt in the mirror, as his wife and nanny and children are napping. In “January Morning,” a poem I love so much I memorized all 500+ words of it, he takes us around Weehawken, New Jersey and environs, dancing with happiness on a rickety ferry-boat called Arden.

Here’s how the poem ends:

Well, you know how the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well, that’s the way it is with me somehow.

A cheerful modernist, what a concept!

And there’s more. Judging from “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” his tribute to his fierce, difficult grandmother, he appreciated strong women. He was attractive in a non-threatening way.******* Politically progressive without being loony. And a great family man! He married his wife Flossie in 1912 and they stayed married, stolen plums and all, until his death in 1963. Aside from the minor issue of how you could be named William Williams and then name your son William, he seemed perfect.

Photograph of William Carlos Williams, wearing fedora, with mother and sons, ca. 1918.

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb Williams, ca. 1918

The first warning sign came at the end of Al Que Quiere!: a reference to “lewd Jews’ eyes” in the long poem “The Wanderer.” An isolated incident, I hoped. But, when I looked further, it all started to fall apart. The final blow came in a Washington Post review of a 1981 biography of Williams. The biographer acknowledges that he threw around words like “kike” but says that this wasn’t anti-semitism, it was just part of the “popular racial myths of his time.” The reviewer responds, “Exactly. ‘Popular racial myths’ are what racism consists of.”

Exactly.

Good-bye, W.C.!

At this point I threw up my hands and said,

Cover of Dada 3 magazine, December 1918, with text Je ne veux meme pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi - Descartes.

Dada 3, December 1918

Which, if you don’t know French (and yes, Ezra Pound, there are such people), means “I don’t even want to know if there were men before me.”

There are lots of ways 1918 was better than 2018. Cars looked cooler

Advertisement for Cole Aero-Eight with picture of car, 1918.

and magazine covers were more attractive

Vogue Magazine cover, woman reclining on bed in front of open window, December 15, 1918

George Wolfe Plank, Vogue, December 15, 1918

and, regardless of whether you’d want to marry them, these men were part of a far greater literary age than our own.

But my search for 1918 love has made me grateful that I’m living in a world of 2018 men.

Especially the one I married 15 years ago today.

Close-up of clasps hands of bride and groom.

Happy anniversary, S.!

Embroidered postcard reading For my dear husband, with flowers.

Silk embroidered postcard, WWI

*I’m not being fussy here about whether people were single in 1918 (Mencken was; Lippmann wasn’t), or whether they were age-appropriate for a 100-years-older me.

**Who I just now found out was the father of Joan Aiken, one of my favorite children’s authors (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, etc.).

***Also, Virginia Woolf called Eliot’s first wife a bag of ferrets around his neck in her journal, and I’d hate it if she said that about me.

****Judging from the photo, he had a daughter, but that didn’t mean much in 1918.

*****He also slept with the daughter of another Fabian friend, and when fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb called this a “sordid intrigue” he lampooned her and her husband Sidney in a novel.

******He did think some women were stupid, but that’s because they were.

Q and A from Dr. Wiley's Question Box, woman asking if Crisco is Ivory soap without the scent, July 1918.

Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, Good Housekeeping, July 1918

*******If you beg to differ, that’s his passport photo. I got mine taken this week, and even though I made them retake it six times it still looks like the picture of Dorian Gray.

A 1918 play about a single mother, too far ahead of its time

Reading the March 1918 issue of The Bookman a couple of weeks ago, I came across a brief review of The Madonna of the Future, which had recently opened on Broadway. As critic Clayton Hamilton tells us,

the heroine of this play is a very rich young woman, unencumbered with relatives, who desires to become a mother but does not desire to be saddled with a husband. In consequence of her convictions, she picks out an apparently eugenic mate and becomes, in due time, the mother of a nameless child.

My reaction: What? This is the least 1918 thing I’ve ever heard of!   

“Madonna of the Future” star Emily Stevens, New York Times, January 27, 1918

The Dramatic Mirror thought so too. “The most pitiful creature of the brothel would scorn such an idea,” the magazine huffed. It was not alone, apparently—New York Chief Magistrate William McAdoo* received a number of complaints. He wrote to the theater’s lawyers telling them that, if the issue arose in court, he would have to declare the play obscene. McAdoo said that

the character of the heroine repeatedly and tiresomely states over and over again that the doctrines advanced by her are unconventional and, in the sense usually accepted by ordinary people, immoral. She says that her highest ideal of maternity is that of the cow, which might suggest that the proper place for this play would be a stable instead of the stage, committing the dialogue to learned veterinarians.

I haven’t been able to find a script of the play, but here’s what I’ve managed to piece together. Iris Fotheringham, a wealthy young woman from Tarrington, New York, hates men, but has what the Dramatic Mirror calls “one redeeming virtue—the dream of all good women—the desire of motherhood.” She decides that her secretary, Rex Letherick, would be a suitable father,** and whisks him off to Europe. After the baby is born, she blithely resumes her New York life. Rex is desperately in love with Iris, and, as the Dramatic Mirror puts it, “still willing to be her husband.” Iris gets wind that there’s another woman in the picture, gets jealous, and marries Rex.

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

What makes this story even more interesting is that the play’s author, Alan Dale, was America’s most famous theater critic. The British-born Dale (real name Alfred Cohen) had been writing acerbic reviews for the Hearst newspapers since the 1880s. He had made a lot of enemies along the way. “The theatrical world is finding considerable amusement in the situation created by the police complaint,” the Dramatic Mirror gloated, speculating that the cause of the play’s troubles was a morality campaign by the city’s Tammany Hall mayor. For good measure, the magazine threw in some cracks about the play’s bad reviews.

New York Times, January 29, 1918

This was unfair, as far as I can tell. The un-bylined New York Times reviewer called the play “a brilliantly written comedy of ideas,” although he complained that the ending was a copout. He noted similarities to George Bernard Shaw, but said that Shaw, “having real ideas of his own, also has the courage of them.”  Astonishingly, the reviewer got away with saying that the de-stigmatization of single motherhood was important to contemplate,

for women in these coming manless times will be much occupied with the thought that life would be less empty if only there were children. And the world will have need of new citizens.

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

George Jean Nathan, who co-edited Smart Set with H.L. Mencken and is now regarded as the greatest theater critic of his time, really, really hated Dale’s reviews. He complained in Smart Set’s April 1918 issue that Dale displayed

the sort of humour…that proceeds from the comparison of something or other with a Limburger cheese or from some such observation as “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.” The sort of humor, in short, whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

But Nathan goes on to praise The Madonna of the Future, saying that

its theme is viewed through the glasses of a man possessed of a certain pleasant measure of cultural background and expounded in well thought out and effective vein; its net impression is of a piece of writing designed by a civilized gentleman for a civilized audience.

The New York Times ran this list of adjectives that had been used to describe the play, ranging from puerile to shocking to brilliant:

New York Times, March 10, 1918

After the theater received the letter, the script was revised, there was some back and forth with McAdoo, the play closed on Broadway after less than two months, and the censored version, retitled The Woman of the Future, moved to New York’s “subway circuit.”

In spite of its short run, The Madonna of the Future caused quite a stir. Today’s Iris Fotheringhams may, in part, have Alan Dale to thank for getting people used to the idea that having a baby without a husband isn’t all that big a deal.

Alan Dale lives on in another way as well: his 1889 novel A Marriage Below Zero has been described as the first English-language novel to depict a romantic relationship between two men.

All in all, not a bad legacy for someone who said “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

G.W. Dillingham, 1889

*This William McAdoo, a former congressman and New York police commissioner, was born in Ireland and was apparently no relation to Secretary of the Treasury/Railroad Administrator/Woodrow Wilson son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo.

**Well, he has a great porn star name anyway.