Wed 4 Sep, 2013
I’m thrilled to announce that as of August 29, 2013 Vintage Powder Room has joined Los Angeles Magazine’s style blog, THE CLUTCH!
Please look for VPR there, and new posts coming to this page soon too.
Wed 4 Sep, 2013
I’m thrilled to announce that as of August 29, 2013 Vintage Powder Room has joined Los Angeles Magazine’s style blog, THE CLUTCH!
Please look for VPR there, and new posts coming to this page soon too.
Sun 1 Jul, 2012
All hail the Queen! The Regina hair net envelope suggests that any wearer of the net inside will become a queen. Well, a hair net is much easier to wear out in public than a jeweled crown is — unless you’re Miss America.
The Miss America Pageant was conceived in Atlantic City. The Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City devised a plan that would keep profits flowing into the city past Labor Day, which was when tourists traditionally left for home.
The kick-off event was held on September 25, 1920, and was called the Fall Frolic. Who could resist an event in which three hundred and fifty men pushed gaily decorated rolling wicker chairs along a parade route? The main attractions were the young maidens who occupied the chairs. The head maiden was Miss Ernestine Cremona who, dressed in a flowing white robe, was meant to represent peace.
The Atlantic businessmen had scored a major success with the Frolic. They immediately realized the powerful appeal of a group of attractive young women dressed in bathing suits, and so a committee was formed to organize a bather’s revue for the next year’s event.
The bather’s revue committee contacted newspapers in cities as far west as Pittsburgh and as far south as Washington, D.C. asking them to sponsor local beauty contests. The winners of the local contests would participate in the Atlantic City beauty contest.
Atlantic City newspaperman Herb Test reported that the winner of the city’s pageant would be called Miss America.
The 1921 Fall Frolic was five days of, well, frolicking. There were tennis tournaments, parades, concerts, a fancy dress ball and SEVEN different bathing divisions! If you were in Atlantic City during those five days and not dressed in a bathing suit you would have been out of place. Children, men, even fire and police personnel, all were in bathing suits. There was a category created specifically for professional women, and by professional the pageant’s organizers didn’t mean corporate women, secretaries or hookers, they meant stage and screen actresses.
The first Miss America was chosen by a combination of the crowd’s applause and points given to her by a panel of artists who served as judges. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Gorman (30-25-32), who bore a strong resemblance to screen star Mary Pickford, was proclaimed the winner. Gorman was crowned, wrapped in an American flag, and presented with the Golden Mermaid trophy and $100.
Atlantic City expanded the frolic during the 1920s and the number of contestants grew to 83 young women from 36 states. The event drew protestors who thought that the girls were immoral — why else would they be willing to parade around in bathing suits in public? The organizers countered the protests by publicizing that the contestants were wholesome, sweet young things who neither wore make-up, nor bobbed their hair.
With the runaway success of the Atlantic City pageant, other groups saw an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon by promoting their own ideals of beauty. The 1920s saw pageants for a Miss Bronze America, and even the Ku Klux Klan staged a pageant for Miss 100 Percent America! It’s difficult for me to visualize a woman wearing a bathing suit and one of those dopey conical hats.
For the next several years the Atlantic City pageant continued to thrive and to change. One of the changes was in scoring. How does a panel of judges determine a beauty contest winner? By the mid-1920s a points system was established: five points for the construction of the head, three points for the torso, two points for the leg…I’m wondering just how many points a perky rounded posterior was worth.
In 1926, Norma Smallwood, a small-town girl from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was crowned Miss America. She parlayed her reign into big bucks. She reportedly made over $100k — more than either Babe Ruth or President Calvin Coolidge!
Smallwood appears to have been the first Miss America who realized that her crown was a business opportunity. When she was asked to return to Atlantic City in 1927 to crown her successor, she demanded to be paid. When the pageant reps didn’t come forward with a check, Norma bid them adieu and headed for a gig in North Carolina.
By 1928 women’s clubs, religious organizations and other conservative Americans went on the attack and accused the organizers of the Miss America Pageant of corrupting the nation’s morals. One protester said, “Before the competition, the contestants were splendid examples of innocence and pure womanhood. Afterward their heads were filled with vicious ideas.”
The controversy over the beauty contest scared the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce so badly that, in 1928, they voted twenty-seven to three to cancel the event!
The stock market crash and resulting economic depression made the Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce rethink the event, and it was revived 1933.
In 1933, thirty young women were brought to Atlantic City aboard a chartered train called the Beauty Special.
The Atlantic City Press newspaper reported:
“Queens of pulchritude, representing 29 states, the District of Columbia and New York City, will arrive here today to compete for the crown of Miss America 1933.
The American Beauty Special train will arrive at the Pennsylvania-Reading Railroad Station at South Carolina Avenue at 1:20 p.m. to mark the opening of the eighth edition of the revived Atlantic City Pageant. The five-day program will be climaxed Saturday night with the coronation ceremonies in the Auditorium.
A collection of blondes, brunettes and red heads, will assemble in Broad Street Station, Philadelphia, this morning, and the beauty special will leave at 11:55 a.m.”
It is surprising that more women didn’t participate in the 1933 Miss America pageant. In the midst of the Great Depression the contest prizes sounded fabulous, “Wealth and many honors await the Miss America this year. She will receive many valuable prizes and a cash award as well. In addition, she will have opportunities to pursue a theatrical career.”
Some of the contestants may have believed the stories related in rags-to-Broadway-riches films like GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. The opportunity for a girl to win a part in a film or on Broadway would have been a potent lure for those who saw themselves as the next Joan Blondell or Ruby Keeler. I can imagine many of the Miss America hopefuls on the Beauty Train singing WE’RE IN THE MONEY.
The 1933 winner was Marian Bergeron, a talented girl from Westhaven, Connecticut. She was poised for a shot at stardom until the newspapers reported her age; she was only fifteen. Her young age put a damper on an offer from RKO, but she was buoyed by a two year reign – no pageant was held in 1934.
During the 1930s the Miss America pageant continued to be viewed by many as a circus of sin. In October 1935 a scandal rocked the contest.
Less than a month after seventeen-year-old Henrietta Leaver had been crowned Miss America, a nude statue of her was unveiled in her hometown of Pittsburgh.
Henrietta swore up and down that she had worn a bathing suit when she posed for the statue, and she also said that her grandmother had been with her each time she had posed. Nobody bought Henrietta’s story and the image of the Miss America pageant was further tarnished.
One of my favorite Miss America contestants of the 1930s was Rose Veronica Coyle (1936 winner). Rose was twenty-two when she won title of Miss America. Rose wore a short ballet shirt with a white jacket, brightened by huge red polka dots, and sang “I Can’t Escape from You”.
She then wowed the judges with her eight-minute long tap dance routine performed to TRUCKIN’. The audience loved her so much the judges allowed her an encore — the first in the pageant’s history.
The Miss America Pageant lost its venue after WWII broke out because it was needed by the military. Rose Coyle and her husband, Leonard Schlessinger (National General Manager of Warner Bros. Theaters) saved the day by relocating the Miss America Pageant to the Warner Theatre on the Boardwalk. It would be the pageant’s home until 1946.
Sun 24 Jul, 2011
It wouldn’t do to let July slip past without acknowledging Miss Freedom. After all, July is the month during which the U.S. celebrates its independence, and that is what the Miss Freedom hairnet package is all about; even though it is ironic that the Miss Freedom hairnet was made of imported English rayon.
With a patriotic red, white, and blue color scheme, and the Liberty Bell depicted behind her, the woman on the cover of the package is a 1940s representation of the Statue of Liberty come to life — minus a torch, a tabula ansata (a tablet evoking the law), and a broken chain at her feet.
The real Statute of Liberty isn’t overtly sexy as is Miss Freedom. The statute, designed by Frederic Bartholdi, is a neoclassical sculpture and represents Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom; and her formal title is “Liberty Enlightening the World”.
The Statue of Liberty is an icon now but when the idea was first conceived it was a hard sell and fundraising was difficult; in fact, the project was threatened due to a lack of funds. Publisher Joseph Pulitzer of the newspaper The World initiated a drive for donations to complete the project and the campaign resulted in over 120,000 contributors, most of whom gave less than a dollar.
Joseph Pulitzer arrived in the U.S. from Budapest in 1864 and immediately enlisted in the Lincoln Calvary, he was 18. Following the Civil War Joseph tried, unsuccessfully, to hold down a job. He worked as a mule hostler but quit after two days stating “The man who has not cared for sixteen mules does not know what work and troubles are”.
Pulitzer was cut out for more intellectual pursuits than tending mules. Joseph became an attorney in 1868 but unfortunately his broken English didn’t gain him many clients. Finally, later in 1868, Joseph was offered a job as a reporter for the Westliche Post.
Joseph had a demonstrated flair for reporting and business. In 1872 he bought a share in the Westliche Post for $3,000 and sold it for a profit in 1873. In 1879 he purchased the St. Louis Dispatch and the St. Louis Post and merged them as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which remains St. Louis’ daily newspaper. While at the Post-Dispatch, Pulitzer became a champion of the common man with exposes and a hard-hitting populist approach.
By 1883 Joseph Pulitzer was a very wealthy man in a buying mood, so he purchased the New York World from Jay Gould who had been running the paper at a loss (about $40,000/year). The energetic publisher turned the paper around by shifting the focus onto human interest stories, scandal, and sensationalism. Under Pulitzer’s stewardship circulation of The World grew from 15,000 to over 600,000 — it became the largest newspaper in the country.
In 1887 America’s pioneer female journalist, Elizabeth Jane Cochran (aka Nellie Bly), left the Pittsburgh Dispatch after being relegated to theater and arts reporting — topics considered to be more appropriate for a woman than the hard-hitting stories Nellie preferred to cover.
Following her departure from the Pittsburgh Dispatch, Nellie went to New York where she joined the reporting staff of the World and accepted a risky undercover assignment; she agreed to feign insanity to investigate reports of brutality and neglect at the Woman’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.
Nellie practiced deranged expressions in front of a mirror for a night ( I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall for that)! Having perfected her demented look, she then checked into a working class boardinghouse. She convinced the other boarders that she was crazy and was soon carted off to Bellvue Hospital where she was pronounced “undoubtedly insane” by the head of the insane pavilion.
Dubbed the “pretty crazy girl” by the media (they were unaware of her true identity and that she was employed by Pulitzer), Nellie was committed to the asylum where she experienced the horrendous conditions firsthand. The nurses were abusive and would beat patients who didn’t respond immediately to their commands. Nellie also concluded that many of the patients were as sane as she was. After ten days of mistreatment Bly was released from the asylum at the World’s behest. Her report, “Ten Days in a Mad-House” won her lasting fame. The report was responsible for launching a grand jury investigation which resulted in a budget increase of $850,000 for the Department of Public Charities and Corrections in New York.
Whenever I think of asylums and evil nurses, I always conjure up a picture of Nurse Ratched (Big Nurse) from the 1975 film based upon Ken Kesey’s novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. But I digress.
In 1895 Nellie Bly married Robert Seaman who was 40 years her senior. Seaman was a millionaire manufacturer, so Nellie retired from journalism to become the president of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co., which made steel containers. Bly received two US patents, one for a novel milk can, and the second one for a stacking garbage can.
For a time Nellie was one of the leading female industrialists in the US, but she was forced into bankruptcy by embezzling employees and resumed her career as a journalist. She covered the women’s suffrage convention in 1913, and reported from Europe’s Eastern Front during World War I.
Joseph Pulitzer, who had wisely hired Nellie Bly, died of tuberculosis on his yacht, the Liberty, on October 29, 1911. Pulitzer’s yacht lived on, at least for a while. The Liberty served as a hospital ship during World War I and was broken up in 1937.
Nellie Bly died of pneumonia at St. Mark’s Hospital in New York in 1922 at age 57.
Wed 18 May, 2011
I’m always curious about the back story, if any, behind a product’s name. It makes good marketing sense for most product names to reflect either a tangible attribute of the product being marketed, or to evoke a desirable emotion for the end user. Cute little puppies make us feel warm and fuzzy about a product. In the case of the SALLY hair net I found that there was an extremely popular musical of the same name playing at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway in New York in 1920 – which corresponds to the date of manufacture of the hair net.
SALLY opened on December 21, 1920 at the New Amsterdam Theater on Broadway and ran for an incredible 570 performances! By the time that the show closed in the mid-1920s, it would be among the top five money makers of the decade.
I can easily imagine women making a connection between the hair net and the hit musical. SALLY boasted music by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Clifford Grey. It was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, and starred Marilyn Miller.
Marilyn Miller was an enormously popular stage and screen actress, and while she often played in rags to riches stories which end happily, her own life was marred by tragedy. By the 1930s Marilyn had become increasingly dependent upon alcohol, possibly to relieve some of the discomfort of the frequent sinus infections from which she suffered.
Marilyn checked herself into a New York hospital in March 1936 to recover from a nervous breakdown. While there she underwent surgery on her nasal passages. She succumbed to complications from the surgery on April 26, 1936 – she was only 37 years old.
There are a couple of interesting footnotes to Marilyn Miller’s story. Census records reveal about half a dozen “Marilyns” in the United States in 1900; by the 1930s, following Miller’s stardom, it was the 16th most common first name among American females!
In the late 1940s, Norma Jean Baker changed her name to Marilyn Monroe at the urging of Ben Lyon, a one-time actor turned casting director at 20th Century Fox, who said she reminded him of Marilyn Miller.
And in an ironic twist, Marilyn Monroe would herself become Marilyn Miller when she wed the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956.
Another inspirational SALLY, whose name may have drawn women to the hair net package, was WAMPAS Baby Star, burlesque queen and fan dancer extraordinaire, Sally Rand.
What was WAMPAS? It was a promotional campaign sponsored by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers which honored thirteen young women each year whom they believed to be on the threshold of movie stardom. They were selected from 1922 to 1934, and annual awardees were honored at a party called the “WAMPAS Frolic”. Those selected were given extensive media coverage.
Sally Rand was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1927and her stage name, like Marilyn Monroe’s, was chosen for her by someone else. In Rand’s case the name was bestowed upon her by Cecil B. DeMille who was inspired by a Rand McNally atlas.
After the introduction of sound film Rand became a dancer, and she was best known for the fan dance which she popularized starting at the Paramount Club.
Her most famous appearance was at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair entitled Century of Progress. She had been arrested four times in a single day during the fair due to perceived indecent exposure while riding a white horse down the streets of Chicago, but the nudity was only an illusion.
She also conceived and developed the bubble dance, in part to cope with wind while performing outdoors. She performed the fan dance on film in Bolero, released in 1934.
Sally Rand with her artfully manipulated fans and bubbles became a part of popular culture, and in Tex Avery’s cartoon Hollywood Steps Out (1941), a rotoscoped Rand performs her famous bubble dance onstage to an appreciative crowd. A grinning Peter Lorre caricature in the front row comments, “I haven’t seen such a beautiful bubble since I was a child.” The routine continues until the bubble is suddenly popped by Harpo Marx and his slingshot, with a surprised Rand (her nudity covered by a well-placed wooden barrel) reacting with shock. Rand is referred to as “Sally Strand” here.
Rand also makes an appearance in the crime fiction of Max Allan Collins in his book TRUE DETECTIVE. If you like historical mysteries set in the 1930s-1960s, pick up one of Collins’ novels featuring the character Nate Heller. I’m a fan of all of Collin’s work (he wrote the graphic novel THE ROAD TO PERDITION), but I’m particularly fond of the Nate Heller tales because Heller mixes it up with the likes of Chicago gangster Frank Nitti, and other historical figures such as Eliot Ness, and Amelia Earhart.
In STOLEN AWAY, Heller becomes involved in the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. I’m looking forward to the first Nate Heller novel in about a decade – it’s entitled “BYE BYE, BABY” and it is due out in August. The novel will feature Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Hoffa, and even the CIA.
I’m always up for a historical thrill ride, which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the release this week of Rock Star Video’s L.A. NOIRE game, which purports to be an accurate portrayal of the cityscape of Los Angeles in 1947. I have a compelling interest in 1947 Los Angeles for a few reasons. My friends (and fellow social historians) Kim Cooper and Nathan Marsak originated the seminal LA crime-a-day blog 1947project which undertook the mammoth task of the daily retelling of the crimes and human interest stories of 1947 in prose and in photographs. As a tour guide for ESOTOURIC I participate in THE REAL BLACK DAHLIA tour, which seeks to examine Beth Short’s life in the weeks before her murder (in January 1947), as well as exploring the lives of other young women during the post-war era in Los Angeles.
I was unable to make it to a preview of L.A. NOIRE a few weeks ago, but Kim and Nathan were on hand to critique the pre-release version from a historical (not game play) perspective. Nathan blogged about the experience HERE.
Unfortunately, Nathan’s free walking tour on May 29th, which will explore some of the locations used in L.A. Noire, is filled to overflowing; however, anyone may attend the free SUNDAY SALON that precedes the tour (noon-2pm), and Nathan’s pre-walking-tour presentation (2pm+) on the architecture of “L.A. Noire.”
I’m attending the Sunday Salon on May 29th, and I’m fortunate to have scored a place for myself on the walking tour. I’m looking forward to a day of Noir fun in Los Angeles.
Wed 1 Dec, 2010
This is just embarrassing – I’ve had my Halloween post up for the entire month of November! Clearly it is time to get back to work, and what better way to kick things off than with this lovely hairnet package. The package is dated 1925, and was designed and/or printed by Seidner & Hitzigrath in New York.
The package is unprinted, that is there’s no brand name on it. I can only imagine what fanciful name a company could have devised for this package.
Of course when thinking of mermaids, the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the The Little Mermaid immediately comes to mind. Fairy tales, particularly Andersen’s, are so frequently painful reflections on love, loss, and rejection that I wonder why parents would ever have chosen to read them to a child. Yet he has always been widely acclaimed for entertaining and delighting children (The Ugly Duckling still makes me cry!). Having said that, I don’t necessarily find the stories great reading to or for a child. The tales illuminate some of the most remarkable traits of the human spirit (even when the “human” is a mermaid or a duckling); the quest to find oneself through sacrifice and/or love.
Sacrifice and the quest for an immortal soul is the thread that runs through The Little Mermaid. The story sounds more like something from Plato than from a Danish writer of children’s books. Plato believed in an immortal soul and, apparently, so did the Mermaid; she went to extraordinary lengths to acquire her heart’s desire. Her longing for a soul would ultimately end her life as a mermaid (she would dissolve into foam) and deny her the Prince of her dreams.
Andersen’s own longing for love was unrequited. At one point he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!
Christian fell in love with the famous opera soprano, Jenny Lind (whose nickname, “The Nightingale”, was inspired by one of Andersen’s stories). He finally found the courage to propose to her, in a letter that he handed to her as she boarded a train. Her answer to him was: “farewell… God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny”.
Andersen appears to have been drawn to unattainable people of both sexes. Andersen wrote to Edvard Collin: “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Collin, who did not prefer men, wrote in his own memoir: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.”
Although Andersen was unable to find love at a personal level, he received it on a far grander scale. At the time of his death, he was an internationally renowned and treasured artist. He received a stipend from the Danish Government as a “national treasure”. Before his death, steps were already underway to erect the large statue in his honor, which was completed and is prominently placed at the town hall square in Copenhagen.
There is a statue of the The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen Harbor, as well as tributes to him in Solvang, California, and in Lublin, Poland.
Andersen’s birthday (April 2) is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day. That’s an extraordinary legacy.
Wed 1 Sep, 2010
In the first act Carmen, a cigarette factory worker, seduces a young solider by tossing a flower at his feet. Really? Clearly it didn’t take too much to capture Don Jose’s attention, or his love.
By the end of the last act Carmen had dragged Don Jose’s reputation, and his heart, through the mud. Of course a woman of Carmen’s volatile temperament could not hitch her wagon to a doormat, so she would jilt Don Jose in favor of Escamillo, a handsome toreador.
In classic operatic tradition Don Jose doesn’t thank Carmen for the memories and bid her adieu – he picks up a knife and stabs her to death just as Escamillo wins the bullfight. Opera has never been known for its subtle symbolism. And that is precisely why I enjoy opera so much. It never makes a small gesture.
Apart from rock stars of the 1970s, my favorite wearer of platform shoes would have to be Carmen Miranda. It’s easy to think of her as an opera on two legs. And she did not earn the moniker “Brazilian Bombshell” by being a wallflower. She was bold and brash and so was her footwear.
Carmen was born in Varzea da Ovelha, a village in the northern Portuguese municipality of Marco de Canaveses. She was christened Carmen by her father because of his love for Bizet’s masterpiece. His passion for opera influenced all of his children, and especially contributed to Miranda’s love for singing and dancing at an early age.
Her father may have been a fan of opera, but he did not approve of her plans to enter show business. However, in true operatic fashion her mother supported her and was beaten when her husband discovered Carmen had auditioned for a radio show.
Carmen had previously sung at parties and festivals in Rio. Her older sister Olinda contracted tuberculosis and was sent to Portugal for treatment. Miranda went to work in a tie shop at age 14 to help pay her sister’s medical bills. She next worked in a boutique, where she learned to make hats and opened her own hat business which became profitable. She may never have envisioned just how well the hat making skills would pay off!
Carmen was very popular in Brazil, but once in the U.S., Carmen’s career (and platforms) hit the ground running. She arrived in 1939 with her band, Bando da Lua. She was presented to Franklin D. Roosevelt at a White House banquet, and went on to star in a baker’s dozen of Hollywood films!
Just eight years later Carmen was the highest-paid entertainer and top female taxpayer in the U.S., earning more than $200,000!
On March 17, 1947 she married movie producer David Sebastian. He was not a successful producer and even more of a disaster when he declared himself Carmen’s manager. In the few months that they lived together as husband and wife he made a series of bad business decisions. He was a boozer, and dragged Carmen along with him. Carmen was a Catholic and would not seek a divorce so she and David were legally married until her death in 1955.
The “lady in the tutti frutti hat” has had a profound influence on popular culture, and her likeness has popped up in everything from cartoons to the character of Chiquita Banana.
On August 4, 1955 while appearing in a live segment of the Jimmy Durante Show, Carmen collapsed. She recovered quickly and resumed her performance not realizing that she’s suffered a heart attack. Her heavy smoking and alcohol consumption, compounded by her use of amphetamines and barbiturates had taken a serious toll on her health.
Honoring her wishes, Carmen’s family had the entertainer’s body flown back to Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government declared a period of national mourning and 60,000 people attended a formal ceremony in Rio’s town hall. More than 500,000 people escorted the funeral cortege to her final resting place.
I’ve never had a burning desire to visit Rio de Janeiro, but after finding out that there is a Carmen Miranda Museum there – I may have changed my mind.
Tue 17 Aug, 2010
The first thing that this hair net package calls to mind is obviously the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; but it actually bears some resemblance to the Grant Street Gate to that city’s Chinatown.
My initial impulse when I sat down to write this post was to follow a straight line from the Golden Gate Bridge to Chinatown, but my thinking is rarely stays that linear. After a few minutes I realized that what San Francisco means to me, other than 1960s psychedelic bands, is Sam Spade.
The novel THE MALTESE FALCON, featuring the character of Sam Spade, was written by Dashiell Hammett and was published in 1930 – during the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
The golden age of detective fiction is generally considered to be those years between the World Wars. Many of the writers of the Golden Age were British (e.g. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers); however, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett were successfully writing classic American detective stories during that period. Today Hammett and Chandler are two of the best known of the era’s hard-boiled detective fiction authors.
As early as 1929, writers were attempting to define the mystery/detective genre. Ronald Knox, an English theologian, priest and crime writer published some rules for writing detective fiction.
According to Knox a detective story: “must have as its main interest the unraveling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”
Knox’s “Ten Commandments” (or “Decalogue”) are as follows:
Rule number five is particularly odious. No Chinaman? What happens when the detective is a Chinaman? Earl Derr Biggers created Charlie Chan during the 1920s. There are many reasons to be offended by the portrayal of Chan both in the books and in the subsequent films; however, I think a good rule of thumb is to never apply today’s sensibilities to yesterday’s literature. My reading list would shrink to nearly nothing if I did that. I look at the stories in the context of their time, and by putting Charlie Chan in a position of authority I believe that Biggers was taking an interesting, and somewhat risky step forward.
Quoting from Wikipedia: “Interpretations of Chan by critics are split, especially as relates to his ethnicity. Positive interpretations of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent, and honorable, in contrast to most depictions of Chinese at the time the character was created. Others argue that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces Chinese stereotypes such as poor English grammar, and is overly subservient in nature.” I’ll leave the debate on ethnicity and stereotypes to others.
Rule number seven was probably meant to discourage other writers from doing what Agatha Christie had done so successfully in 1926, which was to write a detective novel in which the narrator turns out to be the killer. The novel, THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD, has been considered by many to have been Christie’s masterpiece.
In 1930 Agatha Christie published her first Miss Marple novel, MURDER AT THE VICARAGE, (a classic “cozy”) and Dashiell Hammett published THE MALTESE FALCON, the only novel to feature Sam Spade and, arguably, the novel that first introduced the archetype of the hard-boiled detective to the world. In the novel Spade is cynical, bitter, and morally ambiguous, that is until he explains to Brigid O’Shaunassey his reasons for turning her in. Spade’s moral code may be non-traditional, but he adheres to it. Spade tells her that he had fallen for her, but she had murdered his partner. He’d never be able to trust her, and he’d likely go to prison with her if he concealed what he knew from the cops. Finally Spade tells Brigid that he’ll wait for her; provided she doesn’t hang.
Hammett not only created the modern private detective, but he created two of my favorite film characters, Nick and Nora Charles. Hammett wasn’t quite as enamored of the THIN MAN films as I am, but they did provide him with enough money to afford decent liquor, at least for a while. Who were Nick and Nora in real life? Hammett told his long-time companion, writer Lillian Hellman, that she was the inspiration for Nora. However, according to Hellman “Hammett said I was also the silly girl in the book and the villainess.”
Hellman and Hammett had a 30 year long relationship – a part of which was depicted in the 1977 film JULIA starring Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, and Vanessa Redgrave. Did Hellman really smuggle papers out of Nazi Germany in her hat as shown in the film, or had she taken another woman’s (i.e. Muriel Gardiner) story as her own? The jury is still out on whether or not Hellman greatly embellished her autobiographies.
In any case, JULIA was a compelling enough film to win three Oscars. I love the movie – the costumes are exquisite, the acting superb. It’s worth watching whether the story is Hellman’s or not. Oh, and look at this clip from the film with Meryl Streep as Anne Marie and Jane Fonda as Lillian.
During the 1950s Hammett was investigated by Congress, and testified on March 26, 1953 before the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Although he testified to his own activities, he refused to cooperate with the committee and was blacklisted.
Others refused, as did Hammett, to cooperate with HUAC and they paid dearly. A group of Hollywood writers who refused to cooperate with the committee became known as THE HOLLYWOOD TEN. They were Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Samuel Ornitz, Adrian Scott and Dalton Trumbo.
The ten men claimed that the First Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to refuse to answer questions about their beliefs. The HUAC and, subsequently, the courts disagreed and all ten men were found guilty of contempt of congress. Each of them was sentenced to between six and twelve months in prison.
Hellman had appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950. At the time, HUAC was well aware that Dashiell Hammett had been a Communist Party member. Asked to name names of acquaintances with communist affiliations, Hellman delivered a prepared statement which read in part:
“To hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have not comfortable place in any political group.”
Hellman may have embellished her autobiographies, but her statement to HUAC leads me to believe that she was also a stand-up dame.
About Hammett’s writing career, Hellman said:
“I have been asked many times over the years why he did not write another novel after The Thin Man. I do not know. I think, but I only think, I know a few of the reasons: he wanted to do a new kind of work; he was sick for many of those years and getting sicker. But he kept his work, and his plans for work, in angry privacy and even I would not have been answered if I had ever asked, and maybe because I never asked is why I was with him until the last day of his life.”
I’ve never been able to visit San Francisco without thinking of Dashiell Hammett or Sam Spade. Even though Hammett never wrote another novel after THE THIN MAN, his contribution to mystery fiction, in particular to the hard-boiled genre, was seminal.
Mon 31 May, 2010
As soon as I saw the roadster (a Duesenberg?) in the illustration on the hair net package, I knew that the jaunty young lady at the wheel had to be the world renowned girl detective Nancy Drew.
When you were a child did you ever want to be Nancy Drew? I did. And all these years later I’m still so captivated by the idea of being a gal gumshoe, a dame detective, a she shamus, that I give crime tours with the LA-based company Esotouric on most weekends. But even the tours aren’t enough to satisfy my longing be a PI, cop, or a stylish and witty helpmate, like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films.
Just because I never became a private investigator or cop (I like to believe that I DID become a stylish and witty helpmate) that doesn’t mean that I can’t pursue my crime busting dreams. I’ve discovered a few ways in which to get my crime fix – the aforementioned tours, and I volunteer at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society (LAPHS).
The historical society has a fantastic museum which is housed in an old police station. I spend my time there organizing and digitizing a collection of Daily Bulletins, and Juvenile Reports. The Bulletins began in 1907 and were distributed to each officer, every day (with the exception of Sundays and holidays). The Bulletins provide a daily snapshot of life in the growing city of Los Angeles, as reflected in the criminal behavior of its citizens.
Nancy Drew did her sleuthing in River Heights, not in Los Angeles, and she began her amateur detecting as a 16 year old in 1930. The early books depict Nancy as a very modern girl — just as she should have been in the years following WWI. She had a litany of accomplishments including: dancer, driver, cook, car mechanic, swimmer, seamstress, painter — and she was fluent in French! If she’d had a leather cat suit, I’m sure she could have given Mrs. Emma Peel (of the 1960s series The Avengers) a run for her money.
The woman who ghosted the Nancy Drew books for the Stratemeyer Syndicate from 1929 to 1953 was Iowan, Mildred Wirt Benson. Mildred was nearly as accomplished as Nancy. At the University of Iowa she participated in swimming, soccer, and was a student journalist. Following graduation she worked as a general reporter for the The Clinton (Iowa) Herald.
Mildred was only 21 when, in 1926, she answered an ad placed by the Stratemeyer Syndicate for ghost writers. Her first assignment resulted in the novel, Ruth Fielding and Her Great Scenario.
Mildred appears to have remained as feisty as Nancy Drew ever was, because she began to take flying lessons at age 59. I’m glad to report that Mildred lived a long life – she passed away in 2002 at the age of 96.
Nancy Drew has gone on to have a long and eventful life too. There were some terrific films in the 1940s featuring Bonita Granville as Nancy, and more recently (2007) Emma Roberts played the girl sleuth. In 2002 the first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the Old Clock, sold over 150,000 copies!
Oh, and if you think that Nancy Drew was a pre-feminist bimbo who couldn’t possibly have had an impact on intelligent and strong women, think again. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton cites her as an early influence, and so do Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Sonia Sotomayor.
For more information on Mildred Wirt Benson visit the University of Iowa Digital Library.
Mon 15 Mar, 2010
Hooray for Hollywood!
I wish that this hair net package was in better shape, but they can’t all be perfect. I know that condition is crucial when you’re collecting, yet sometimes it doesn’t matter very much to me. I feel especially protective of the packages and boxes that are worn, and often the ones in rough and fragile condition are the only examples of certain designs that I’ve been able to locate. Regardless of their condition, I treat each addition to my collection as a treasured artifact from the past which deserves to be carefully and lovingly preserved.
The Hollywood Hair Net package is from the 1940s, and the bright red color, along with the four stars, brings to my mind Hollywood’s part in the war effort. The woman depicted on package looks like a starlet awaiting her big break, biding her time as a hostess in the Hollywood Canteen.
The stars would never shine as brightly as they did when they were doing their bit for servicemen, and women, from all over the globe. The Hollywood Canteen was the war time passion of Bette Davis, John Garfield, and Jules Stein. Miss Davis served as president, and Mr. Stein, President of Music Corporation of America, headed up the finance committee.
By the time the Canteen opened its doors On October 3, 1942, over 3000 stars, players, directors, producers, grips, dancers, musicians, singers, writers, technicians, wardrobe attendants, hair stylists, agents, stand-ins, publicists, secretaries, and allied craftsmen of radio and screen had registered as volunteers.
If you were a U.S. serviceman, or woman, or a member of the allied forces your uniform was your ticket to a star studded evening. Imagine the morale boost a solider would get when he was served coffee by Marlene Dietrich or Betty Grable!
Here is a photo of lipstick smeared Sgt. Carl E.W. Bell with Marlene Dietrich. Bell was the one millionth solider to visit the Canteen! It’s amazing that it took the Canteen less than one year to host one million servicemen. That’s a lot of coffee and donuts.
Servicemen could not only eat, socialize, and star gaze at the Canteen, they were treated to the best live entertainment that Hollywood had to offer. The roster of entertainers was a “who’s who” of radio and movie talent: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Bob Hope, and many more.
One of the most spirited sister acts ever to boogie woogie across a stage, and a favorite of war time audiences, was the Andrews sisters. Patty, Maxine, and LaVerne travelled and performed for the troops throughout the war. Watch them perform, “I’m Gettin’ Corns for My Country” at the Canteen. I would have loved to have been in the audience on that night.
Many of the hostesses at the Canteen loved to jitterbug, but not every one of them was hep to the jive. Sometime during the evening of October 31, 1942, an overly enthusiastic Marine grabbed the hand of a hostess lieutenant, Florida Edwards, and began to spin her around the dance floor. Florida yelled for help, but none was forthcoming. The jiving Marine spun his unwilling partner so hard that she became airborne and landed with a crash on her spine on the hard floor. Florida was laid up for a month, and then decided to sue the Canteen for $17,250 in damages. The case would become a battle of the swing experts.
But before we go any further, let’s get hep to some hipster slang from the era.
Hep cat (n.) — a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive
Icky (n.) — one who is not hip, a stupid person, can’t collar the jive.
Jitterbug (n.) — a swing fan
Florida Edwards admitted in open court that she was an icky. She told Judge Henry Willis that “Jitterbugging is a very peculiar dance. Personally I don’t like it. It reminds me of the jungle antics of natives. There is a basic step, and then there are variations. It’s the most ungraceful dance I’ve ever seen. They whirl you. They pick you up. They throw you down.”
“Did you just stand still when you told him you didn’t jitterbug?” queried the Canteen’s Attorney Walter Schell.
“Well, you don’t stand still with a jitterbug. They don’t let you,” explained Miss Edwards to the attorneys and judge who had never witnessed jitterbugging.
Judge Willis wanted to know if the jitterbugs drank. “No”, replied Florida, “They’re usually sober. They’re just crazy.”
In dispute was how much control a woman had once she had been thrown into a spin. Florida’s friend Luise Walker, floor manager of the Canteen, stated that once a woman was in a spin she was in trouble. Luise compared a spin to a boomerang or “English on a golf ball”.
Rug-cutter and jive expert for the Canteen, Connie Roberts, (see photo) refuted Luise’s testimony, and in a demonstration she walked away unharmed from a spin.
Testimony and jitterbug demonstrations notwithstanding, Judge Willis declared that the jitterbug was a “weird dance of obscure origins” and awarded Florida Edwards $8170 in damages. The amount wasn’t exactly chump change – $8170 dollars in 1943 had the same buying power as $102,331.38 in current dollars.
In his decision Judge Willis wrote, “In an extra violent spinning of her body as a part of the extravagance of this weird dance, she missed connecting with her partner, due to his losing balance because a table was pushed against him by the crowd on the sidelines.”
Judge Willis held that the Hollywood Canteen had failed in its duty to furnish Miss Edwards with safe employment and permitted a jitterbug enthusiast to “indulge in his ‘crazy idea’ of dancing with the plaintiff as the helpless victim.”
I was curious enough about Florida to see if she ever again appeared in the news.
Sure enough on January 27, 1944 a notice appeared in the Los Angeles Times announcing the marriage of Miss Florida Edwards, actress, to J.C. Lewis a radio producer and author of the musical score for the service show “Hey Rookie”.
The pair was married at the Hotel Frontier. In attendance at the wedding was the groom’s sister, Diana Lewis who was married to “Thin Man” William Powell.
Sounds like Florida landed on her feet.
Mon 16 Nov, 2009
The design on the hairnet package above is emblematic of the 1920s in Southern California: surf, sand, sun and sin. What? You don’t see any sin in the design? I guess it’s just my evil mind — the first thing that I thought of was Sister Aimee Semple McPherson’s mysterious disappearance from Venice Beach on May 18, 1926. What did her disappearance have to do with sin? Read on.
Southern California beaches weren’t just places from which to disappear in the 1920s – they were obviously places to relax (and to wear your prettiest bathing costume.) I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautiful souvenir folder of Venice Beach which not only shows people enjoying a day at the beach, but echoes the design of the hairnet package. Note the similarities in the coloration and overall design — really quite nice.
Aimee was born Aimee Elizabeth Kennedy on October 9, 1890 on a farm in Canada. It was her mother, Mildred (Minnie), who first introduced young Aimee to religion. Minnie worked with the Salvation Army and her daughter would often accompany her to soup kitchens.
While other little girls may have preferred to play house with their dolls, Aimee played “Salvation Army” with hers. Sermonizing to a congregation of dolls may not have been particularly thrilling or rewarding, but it was good practice for her adult life.
Given her interest in religion and the fact that, even in high school, she was protesting the teaching of evolution in public schools, it’s no surprise that she fell for a Pentecostal missionary from Ireland, Robert James Semple.
She converted to her husband’s faith and they married on August 12, 1908. The newlyweds immediately took off on an evangelistic tour of Europe. Continuing their mission they arrived in Hong Kong, China in June 1910, where both contracted malaria. Robert died on August 19, 1910 and was buried in Hong Kong. Aimee was just beginning to recover from the same illness that took her husband when she gave birth to a daughter, Roberta Star Semple, on September 17, 1910.
Newly widowed and a recent mother, Aimee continued to convalesce in New York, and it was there that she met accountant Harold Stewart McPherson. They were married on May 5, 1912, and their son, Rolf, was born on March 23, 1913.
In mid-1915 Aimee took her act on the road and held tent revival meetings up and down the Eastern Seaboard, eventually heading out to other parts of the country. Whatever his reasons, Harold wasn’t always able to travel with his wife and their marriage suffered. In 1918 he filed a petition for divorce (citing abandonment) and the divorce was granted in 1921.
Aimee eventually tired of being on the road and settled in Los Angeles. Her ministry was so successful that she was able to build the Angelus Temple in Echo Park (dedicated in 1923).
Sister Aimee was at the zenith of her influence and popularity by 1926. And then it all began to unravel.
On May 18, 1926 McPherson went with her secretary to Ocean Park Beach, just north of Venice Beach, to swim. It was from there that Aimee vanished. Had she drowned? Her mother thought so. Aimee had been scheduled to preach later that day, but Minnie filled in. She ended her emotional sermon by telling the parishioners that “Sister is with Jesus”.
Mourners kept a seaside vigil for their beloved Aimee, but she did not emerge from the sea. Sadly, one parishioner drowned searching for McPherson, and a diver perished from exposure.
It didn’t take long for people to notice that Kenneth G. Ormiston, the engineer for Aimee’s radio station, KFSG, had disappeared as well. Some felt that Ormiston and McPherson had run off together — they had become very friendly.
A month passed when finally there was word of Aimee in the form of a ransom note delivered to her mother. The note demanded a half million dollars or else McPherson would be sold into “white slavery”. The note was signed “The Avengers”. Believing that her daughter was dead, Minnie tossed the letter.
On June 23rd, like a biblical prophet, Aimee staggered out of the desert into a Mexican town just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Aimee’s story was that she’d been kidnapped, drugged, tortured, and held in a shack until she managed to escape, walking 13 hours to freedom.
There were several gaping holes in her story: her shoes were grass stained and showed no signs of a 13 hour desert trek and, furthermore, she’d disappeared from the beach clad only in a bathing suit, yet she had turned up following her abduction fully dressed and wearing her own wristwatch. To make matters worse, no sign of the shack where she was allegedly held was ever discovered. A grand jury convened on July 8, 1926, but they adjourned after 12 days saying they hadn’t enough evidence to proceed against the wandering minister. The Grand Jury reconvened when new evidence was uncovered. The evidence suggested that Aimee and Kenneth had been traveling together, and signing into motels along the way.
What had Aimee really been up to for over one month? Had she been kidnapped as she continued to maintain, or had she gone off to have an abortion, or heal from plastic surgery? We’ll probably never know. District Attorney Asa Keyes dropped all of the charges, thus ending any official investigation.
Despite the bad press she’d received Aimee continued her good works, but her reputation had been permanently damaged. Involved in a power struggle with her mother over control of the church, Aimee had a nervous breakdown in 1930.
McPherson would marry for a third time on September 13, 1931 to actor and musician David Hutton. Two days into the marriage the groom was sued for alienation of affection by Hazel St. Pierre. Hutton claimed never to have met Hazel, but she still managed to walk away with a settlement of $5,000. Things would get worse. Aimee was in Europe when she heard that Hutton was billing himself as “Aimee’s man” in his cabaret act. Let’s hope he wasn’t performing “The Ballad of Aimee McPherson”. David and Aimee were divorced on March 1, 1934.
On September 26, 1944 McPherson traveled to Oakland, California for a series of revivals. When her son went to her hotel room at 10 am the next morning to fetch her for her sermon, he found her unconscious. Aimee would die less than two hours later. The coroner was not able to conclusively determine the casue of death. Apparently Aimee had been taking sleeping pills (Seconal) and it is most likely that her death was the result of an accidental overdose.
I wonder if there was something in the air during 1926 that caused two very famous women to mysteriously vanish, and then to reappear without a credible explanation. The first woman was, of course, Aimee Semple McPherson — the second woman was famed mystery writer Agatha Christie!
On December 8, 1926 after being told by her husband Archie that he was in love with another woman and wanted a divorce, Agatha vanished. She’d left notes for both her husband and her secretary saying that she was going to Yorkshire. Her car was found abandoned and for a while it appeared that she’d been the victim of foul play.
About ten days later Agatha was identified as a guest at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel (now the Old Swan Hotel) in Harrogate. Agatha would never give a full account of her disappearance. Two doctors diagnosed her as suffering from amnesia. I believe it was the news of Archie’s infidelity that caused her to go off the rails for a while.
Archie and Agatha would divorce, and in 1930 she would marry an archaeologist Max Mallowan, whom she’d met on a dig in the Middle East. The Mallowans would have a long and happy marriage.
For a wonderful fictional account of how Agatha spent her missing days, watch the 1979 film “Agatha” starring Vanessa Redgrave and Dustin Hoffman.