No other item in my collection captures the feeling of Southern California during the 1920s as well as this West Electric Beach & Motor Hair Net envelope.
In addition to producing hair nets, West Electric, based in Philadelphia, manufactured hair curlers and shampoo. The company patented one of its hair curler designs as early as 1909 and ads for their products appeared in magazines such as The Ladies’ Home Journal.
The sandy beach and graceful palm trees depicted on the package are evocative of any location offering surf and sand, but the car is a dead giveaway of the L.A. life—no other place has embraced car culture with such frank enthusiasm and unconditional love as Southern California.
As soon as I saw the hair net package I was drawn into 1920s Los Angeles, and the birth of modern styles in swimwear.
Prior to the 1920s women’s bathing suits were more concerned with coverage than with comfort. Imagine jumping into the surf at Santa Monica Beach in a black, knee-length, puffed-sleeve wool dress. Following WWI everything changed. Women painted their faces and bobbed their hair, and bathing suit designs started to reflect their new freedom. No right thinking flapper would show up at a beach party in anything that covered her knees or her arms.
In 1921 a local fashion show introduced inflatable bathing suits, which were described as pretty and practical because they allowed the wearer to float in the water, just like she was using water wings. The style sank without a trace.
Following the discovery of King Tut’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 people were consumed with all things Egyptian, and of course Egyptian themed bathing suits briefly became the rage on local beaches. What made the water wear Egyptian themed? Why the hand-painted hieroglyphics representing inscriptions from the Pharaoh’s tomb, of course.
Bathing suit designs then changed forever in 1925 when Fred Cole entered the swimwear business. Cole had been a silent film actor, an occupation his parents thought thoroughly disreputable, during the early 1920s, so they were pleased when he suggested that they start a swimwear line at their knitting mills in Los Angeles, and the staid sounding “West Coast Manchester Knitting Mills” became “Cole of California.” Cole would bring Hollywood glamour to the swimsuit industry.
In 1936, Cole hired Margit Felligi, who served as Cole’s head designer until 1972. Felligi was an inspired innovator and in 1943, during the wartime shortage of rubber, she created the first side-laced swimsuit. It was called the “Swoon Suit” in honor of popular crooner Frank Sinatra.
She continued to make fashion history over the years with her significant contributions to fabric and design, including the 1964 “Scandal Suit,” which was considered to be one of the most overtly sexy bathing suits of all time.
Cole still exists as Catalina-Cole, and in 1997 the company launched another winner, the “tankini.” I think Fred Cole and Margit Felligi would be pleased.
Pals, they call Mary Garden (R) and Madge Kennedy (L) at the Goldwyn Studio, where the singer has just completed her newest motion picture, which she calls “a gorgeous thing”. Here she is seen on the last day of her studio work on this production saying au revoir to the piquant Madge Kennedy and telling her that she’d give a fortune for her eyes and smile. Mary Garden is soon to be seen in her newest picture “The Splendid Sinner.”
I love to shop for old cosmetic ads because they provide important information, like the dates when specific products were available. I purchased the Mary Garden advertisement below at an antiques mall for $10.
What does it remind us? That celebrity endorsements are nothing new, for one thing. In fact during the first quarter of the 20th century, female performers of all types started appearing in ads and often had their own line of products manufactured by an established company. I profiled one such woman, actress Edna Wallace Hopper, in October 2013. Another international celebrity who promoted her own product line was opera singer Mary Garden, who partnered with manufacturer Rigaud. Unless you’re a devotee of opera you have likely never heard of her. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, but reared in Chicago, Illinois, Mary was opera’s reigning diva from the 1910s until she retired from the stage in the 1930s.
Although she traveled the world, Mary was fond of Los Angeles and performed here many times to sold-out crowds at the Philharmonic Auditorium on Fifth Street (sadly, it is now a parking lot).
By the 1910s Los Angeles aspired to become a cultural center, but first it had to brush off the dust it had accumulated during its Wild West days. Hosting a world-renowned opera company was one way to show the folks back east that L.A. wasn’t a bush league outpost inhabited by tobacco chewing cowpokes.
In March 1913, the grande dames in town put every hairdresser, milliner, jeweler, and dressmaker in the area to work. All of the shops became beehives of activity in anticipation of a week long visit by the Chicago Grand Opera Company featuring soprano Mary Garden.
Today’s Hollywood movie premieres often draw large crowds, but their numbers are a mere fraction of the thousands that turned out in 1913 to catch a glimpse of ticket holders arriving at the Philharmonic Auditorium. The week of opera was enormously successful, and Garden went on to perform in L.A. many more times in her career.
What I have often wished for when reflecting on this Mary Garden advertisement is a return to a more glamorous time when men and women dressed for an occasion. I’ve attended the L.A. Opera dozens of times and the audience dons everything from evening wear to California casual. More than once I’ve curled my lip in a moue of disapproval. Then again I’ve observed men in tuxedos, chins on their chests, snoozing through Tristan und Isolde and I’ve also seen guys in T-shirts mesmerized by the same performance. If what motivates L.A. audiences is the genuine love of art, I can find nothing wrong with that.
The Adoration Face Powder box dates from the 1920s/1930s, and because the design on the box appears to be that of a spider web it brings to my mind the spooky goings on of Halloween.
Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Eve” and it is an annual celebration observed in many countries on October 31, the eve of the feast of All Hallows (or All Saints).
Scholars believe that the celebration was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead. The end of the harvest season is a symbolic death — the fields are left fallow for a period of time in order to restore their fertility — to be resurrected in the spring.
In A HARVEST OF DEATH, Civil War photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan captured the image of dead soldiers on a battle field waiting to be collected, or harvested, for burial.
A Harvest of Death
The dead have a powerful hold on the living, and festivals of the dead have been observed in many different cultures for centuries.
One of the best known festivals of the dead is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Dia de los Muertos is a Mexican holiday and is held on November 1st (honoring deceased children) and November 2nd (honoring deceased adults). The living go to cemeteries to be with the souls of the departed. Private altars are built at grave sites and may contain favorite foods, beverages, photos, and other memorabilia of the departed.
Spending quality time with the souls of the departed wasn’t enough for the Victorians, they wanted to speak with their deceased loved ones. Elijah Bond, an American lawyer and inventor, made chatting with the deceased a reality — well, if you believe in the power of the Ouija board. On July 1, 1890 the Ouija board was introduced by Bond, and he received a patent for it in 1891.
The Ouija board was originally regarded as a harmless parlor game; but following the carnage of WWI many people were desperate to reach loved ones who had been killed during the conflict, and they searched for ways in which to communicate with their sons, brothers, and husbands. Many of the survivors of the Great War, including the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, found comfort in spiritualism.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Pearl Curran was an American spiritualist who popularized the Ouija board as a divining tool. By all accounts she was an ordinary girl with no special gifts or particular ambitions. She married John Howard Curran when she was 24. The couple’s upper middle-class lifestyle afforded Pearl the opportunity to spend her free time playing cards and calling on friends.
In 1912 Pearl and her friend Emily Grant Hutchings paid a call on a neighbor who had a Ouija board. During the visit Emily claimed to have received a message from a relative. Emily purchased a Ouija board and took it to Pearl’s house with the plan of communicating further with the spirit of her deceased relative.
Initially Pearl was indifferent to her friend’s new obsession, but she finally agreed to participate at the board. On June 22, 1912 Pearl received a communication from a spirit who identified herself as only as Pat-C. Then on July 18, 1913 the board became possessed with unusual strength and energy and Pat-C began to reveal further information about herself. She said “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. Wait, I would speak with thee. If thou live, then so shall I.”
In 1916, Pearl Curran wrote a book publicizing her claims that she had contacted the long dead Patience Worth. By 1919 the pointer on Pearl’s board would just move around aimlessly, but it didn’t matter. Pearl had progressed to pictorial visions of Patience Worth. She said “I am like a child with a magic picture book. Once I look upon it, all I have to do is to watch its pages open before me, and revel in their beauty and variety and novelty…”
Pearl became Patience’s amanuensis, and she faithfully transcribed the stories that came to her through Worth’s spirit. Together the pair wrote novels including: Telka; The Sorry Tale; Hope Trueblood; An Elizabethean Mask as well as several short stories and many poems.
Of course there were the inevitable naysayers who didn’t buy Pearl’s story of a long dead writing partner. Some of the skeptics noted that Patience was somehow able to write a novel about the Victorian age, which came 200 years after she had lived.
However it happened, the literature produced by Patience Worth was considered by many to be first rate. Worth was cited by William Stanley Braithwaite in the 1918 edition of the Anthology of Magazine Verse and Year Book of American Poetry by printing the complete text of five of her poems, along with other leading poets of the day including William Rose Benet, Amy Lowell, and Edgar Lee Masters!
Here is one of Patience Worth’s poems, The Deceiver:
I know you, you shamster! I saw you smirking, grinning
Nodding through the day, and I knew you lied.
With mincing steps you gaited before men, shouting of your valor,
Yet you, you idiot, I knew you were lying!
And your hand shook and your knees were shaking.
I know you, you shamster! I heard you honeying your words,
Licking your lips and smacking o’er them, twiddling your thumbs
In ecstasy over your latest wit.
I know you, you shamster!
You are the me the world knows.
Pearl Curran’s husband, John, passed away on June 1, 1922. It was John who had kept meticulous records of the Patience Worth sessions, so with his death the records became sporadic and fragmentary.
Pearl married two more times but the marriages were short-lived. In the summer of 1930 Pearl left her home in St. Louis for good and moved to California to live with an old friend in the Los Angeles area. On November 25, 1937 Patience communicated for the last time; she said that Pearl was going to die very soon.
Even though Pearl had not been in ill health, she developed pneumonia in late November and passed away on December 3, 1937.
A thorough investigation of the Pearl/Patience case was conducted during Pearl’s lifetime by Dr. Franklin Prince. In 1927 the Boston Society for Psychic Research published Dr. Prince’s book. As a part of his investigation Dr. Prince wrote an article entitled The Riddle of Patience Worth, which appeared in the July 1926 issue of Scientific American. He asked that anyone with information on the Pearl/Patience case to contact him, but no one ever did.
If you’d like to learn more about Pearl Curran and Patience Worth, visit the website dedicated to her (them?)
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.
Louise Brooks, bobbed haired beauty.
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.”
Still from OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928)
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”.
Rose Coyle, Truckin’
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.
The woman on the LA BARA face powder box (c. 1920s) appears to be posing for a picture in the midst of a celebration — perhaps a New Year’s Eve party. The gaiety of the box speaks volumes about the spirit of the 1920s – it was a decade of parties.
There was at least one infamous New Year’s Day get together during the 1920s that ended in a shooting, rather than in a mere hangover.
It was the first day of 1924 and two of the most famous actresses in Hollywood, Mabel Normand and Edna Purviance, had joined wealthy Denver oil man Courtland S. Dines for afternoon cocktails in his apartment at 325-B North Vermont Avenue.
Mabel Normand’s chauffeur, twenty-seven year old Horace A. Greer (alias Joe Kelley) arrived at Dine’s apartment at around 7 pm stating that he’d been called to pick up Miss Normand and take her home.
For whatever reason, Greer was under the impression that Mabel was being detained at Dine’s apartment against her will. Greer thought subterfuge would be needed to gain entrance to the apartment, so he pretended to be a delivery man. When Greer opened the door to the apartment he said that he saw Dines sitting behind a little table in the living room, and saw Miss Normand half-lying on a davenport. Greer thought that Miss Purviance was in a rear bedroom.
Greer later told cops that upon his entrance into Dines’ apartment, he’d announced that he’d come to take Miss Normand home. Despite Mabel’s initial reluctance to depart with Greer, he said that she finally placed her hand on his arm and they started for the front door.
Greer said that Dines picked up a liquor bottle and attempted to strike him, presumably to prevent him from leaving with Mabel. Greer reacted by shooting Dines three times with Mabel’s .25 caliber automatic. He’d slipped the weapon into his pocket earlier in the day.
Edna Purviance, who said she’d been in one of the bedrooms powdering her nose (an activity of which the Vintage Powder Room highly approves) ran into the living room and found Dines still seated without a bottle in his hand. She declared “There was absolutely no reason for him (Greer) to shoot”.
In true Hollywood fashion, rather than phone for an ambulance or the cops, Normand, Purviance, and Greer helped Dines to a bedroom where they undressed him and attempted to give him first aid. They weren’t up to the task — multiple gunshot wounds aren’t something you cover with a band-aid.
The shooting occurred at approximately 7 pm; by 8:20 pm Greer had driven himself to the Wilshire police station and turned himself in. Moments after his confession to the desk cop, an ambulance, trailed by police cars, was dispatched to the scene.
The cops and caregivers arrived at Dines’ apartment to find him in bed, bleeding profusely and smoking a cigarette.
According to news reports Dines arrived at the Receiving Hospital in “a cloud of cigarette smoke and profanity” — hospital attendants were forced to strap the injured man to a stretcher.
In addition to reporting on the Dines’ shooting, the papers reported on Mabel Normand’s attire. Fans always want to know what a star is wearing, particularly in the midst of a scandal. She was, according to the Los Angeles Times, “…dressed in black velvet. She wore two diamond bracelets. In one hatpin were forty diamonds in a cluster.” The LA Times further reported that Edna Purviance was “likewise lavishly attired”.
Both Mabel and Edna were described as being highly excited. I believe we can infer from that description that the two women were tipsy.
After giving her statement to the cops Purviance was allowed to see Dines. When she entered his hospital room she rushed over to him, threw her arms around him and cried “Oh! Courtland! I love you — please don’t die!” The wounded man assured her that he’d been told by the doctor that he was going to pull through just fine.
Mabel, Edna, Courtland
Barely two years before Courtland was shot Mabel had been embroiled in a legendary Hollywood scandal, the mysterious murder of her pal William Desmond Taylor (a murder which remains unsolved).
The shooting of Courtland Dines by her chauffeur was more trouble than Mabel needed.
Immediately following Dines’ shooting, Mabel was grilled by cops and interviewed by reporters; all of whom wanted to discover Greer’s motive for the shooting. The best they could come up with was that Greer had been a secret admirer of Mabel’s and when he thought she was in trouble he rushed to her aid.
Mabel didn’t subscribe to the secret admirer theory — in fact she pooh-poohed it. “Impossible,” she said. “The man must have been insane. He was only one of my servants and was only treated like one.” Mabel went on to say that “I used to ask my chauffeurs, the ones before this one, how they liked a certain scene or something like that, but I got tired of all that blah-blah. Good gosh, I didn’t even hire him. My secretary did that.”
On top of everything, Mabel was scheduled for surgery to remove her appendix the second day after Courtland Dines was shot by her chauffeur.
Mabel c. 1916 getting into one of her cars.
The good news was that Mabel came through her surgery; the bad news was that the press was having a field day — once again Mabel was making news by being in the middle of a bad situation.
Courtland Dines declined to appear in court against Greer. He stated that he’d had so much to drink the day of the shooting that he couldn’t recall anything anyway.
Horace Greer refused to testify on his own behalf at his trial because he said he was afraid of hurting Mabel. He said “Rather than hurt Mabel, I’ll take a chance with the pen.” Unfortunately for Mabel, Greer’s attorneys didn’t share his affection for the actress, at least not when they had her on the witness stand. The story they put forward of the New Year’s Day debacle was risqué at best, and at worst it presented a vivid picture of absolute Hollywood depravity.
Counsel for the defense characterized the New Year’s get together at Dines’ apartment as a Roman saturnalia — a den of infamy — with the “drunken gladiator” Dines posing on one foot while garbed only in an undershirt!
Edna Purviance and Charles Chaplin
Attorney Hahn of Greer’s defense team picked at omissions and flaws in the testimony of Purviance and Normand and he concluded that “They don’t want the truth of this affair to become known. They are afraid it will besmirch the motion-picture profession.”
It seems unlikely that Hollywood’s image could have been tarnished any more than it had been over the couple of years prior to Dines’ shooting. During the early 1920s Hollywood scandals had included the murder of William Desmond Taylor, the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for the death of bit-player and party girl, Virginia Rappe, and the drug-related deaths of stars Olive Thomas, Wallace Reid, Barbara La Marr, and Jeanne Eagels.
Without the testimony of the complaining witness, Courtland Dines, the jury took only four hours to acquit Horace Greer of the charges against him. Greer didn’t have much time to celebrate the verdict; he was busted two hours later on liquor charges.
Mabel Normand’s film career began to decline; after all she’d been involved in two major Hollywood scandals. During Greer’s trial there were calls to ban Mabel’s films, but she’d already begun to do a bit of damage control through newspaper items.
Mabel was popular, talented, and given time she may have survived the Greer scandal, just as she’d done the William Desmond Taylor murder in 1922. It’s more likely that her career suffered as a result of a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1923. She retired from films and passed away in 1930 at age 37.
Edna Purviance had been romantically involved with Charles Chaplin for several years prior to her relationship with Courtland Dines. She would marry neither Charlie nor Courtland; she wedded John Squire, a Pan-American Airlines pilot, in 1938. Edna died of cancer in 1958 at age 62.
Courtland Dines was 34 years old when he was shot by Horace Greer. He’d spend the next couple of decades acquiring wives, four of them, and a stepson. Dines died of a heart attack at age 55 in his hometown of Denver, Colorado.
I do hope that you will celebrate the new year with less drama than Mabel, Edna, Courtland, and Horace did!
Take care, and have a spectacular New Year! I’ll see you in 2012.
Los Angeles has always had more than its share of creative felons, so it stands to reason that it would take an equally creative, gutsy, and dedicated reporter to cover them. One of the most revered reporters who ever worked in Los Angeles was Agness “Aggie” Underwood.
Aggie Underwood interviewing mourner at funeral of Aimee Semple McPherson
Underwood began her career at the LOS ANGELES RECORD in the 1920s. She was sharp, but there were lots of sharp people in the news business at that time. What made Aggie great were her instincts. She seemed to know just how to approach a story to get the most from it. By relying on her gut feelings she managed to keep several paces ahead of her competition, and to earn a reputation for solving crimes.
When the Los Angeles Record folded in the mid-1930s Aggie, who by this time loved the newspaper business (and needed the money), agreed to work for William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles daily, THE HERALD-EXAMINER.
Her decision to join Hearst’s paper was the making of her career. Twelve years after joining the paper she was promoted to editor. Agness Underwood was the first woman in the U.S. to become the editor of a major metropolitan newspaper.
Aggie Underwood’s work as a reporter inspired the lecture that I’m going to give on October 8, 2011, 2 p.m., in the Taper Auditorium at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.
The lecture is entitled “GOLD DIGGERS & SNAKE HANDLERS: Deranged L.A. Crimes from the Notebook of Aggie Underwood” and it is sponsored by Photo Friends. Photo Friends is a non-profit whose mission is to promote and to preserve the photographs in the collection of the Los Angeles Public Library.
I hope that you’ll join me as I examine two murder cases from 1936, both of which were covered by Aggie Underwood.
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.
Are you feeling lucky? If you are, I have the perfect event to suggest to you, CASINO MODERNE!
Photo: Margaret Bourke-White
By the light of day, you may be a businessmen, banker, housewife, shop girl or Sunday school teacher, but this is 1920 and the dawn of Prohibition, where by night you are limited only by your imagination.
Inspired by the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire,” the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles brings a 1920s casino to life on Saturday, February 5, 2011. For one magic night, immerse yourself in living history of the most scandalous kind as you wander, cocktail in hand, through the oldest private club in Los Angeles or settle in at a gaming table that will be legal in the year 2011.
The Los Angeles Athletic Club was founded in 1880, but old Hollywood made it glitter. Add to the gleam as the evening begins at 7 p.m. until it ends at 11:00 p.m. (unless, of course, the cops raid it first!) Purchase a Prohibition-era cocktail, as you enjoy complimentary hors d’ oeuvres and games of chance.
Members $50 (ADSLA and LAAC)–Please note that membership will be verified at Will-Call. If no proof of membership is produced at this time, attendees will be responsible for paying the difference between Member and Non-member rates.
Advance tickets are available via Brown Paper Tickets.
Tickets at the door will go up by $10/each.
Los Angeles Athletic Club
431 West Seventh Street, Third Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90014
Parking $4.50. Parking structure is adjacent to the Club. Entrance is just past LAAC’s awning on the right.
Spend the night in Charlie Chaplin or Rudy Valentino’s rooms!
The Los Angeles Athletic Club has generously offered Casino Night attendees a discounted room in their historic hotel for $134.00. Rate includes American Buffet Breakfast in the third floor Grill Room, in-room WiFi, use of the Athletic Facility and discount overnight parking of $12.00/car. Not included is the city occupancy tax, currently 14%. Call 1-800-421-8777 to book your room.
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).
Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel
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.
Mildred in mid-dive c. 1925
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.
The 1920s and 1930s found women experimenting with make-up as never before. School administrators were scandalized as their female students and teachers appeared in class in the latest fashions with their knees exposed, hair smartly bobbed, eyebrows and eyelashes tinted an inky black. Preachers raged from their pulpits that “powder and paint” were condemning a generation of women to eternal damnation. The preachers may have been right in a way that they could never have predicted.
In those early years there was nothing to prohibit unscrupulous manufacturers from whipping up toxic potions that would turn a tidy profit. The manufacturers worried only about their bottom line, and not about the contents of the poisonous cosmetics which could result in blindness, disfigurement or even death.
On the road with Eleanor Roosevelt
In 1933 Consumer’s Research was trying to gain support for a federal law that would establish and enforce standards for everything from malted milk to cosmetics. An exhibit was created to demonstrate to Congress the need for legislation to proctect consumers – but it ended up going on the road with none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. A reporter dubbed the exhibit the “Chamber of Horrors” and the name stuck.
Here in Los Angeles there was a popular eyelash dye which was available in salons under the name of Louise Norris. Despite the fact that the product had long been suspected of being dangerously toxic, it remained on the market for years. In 1940 the Los Angeles Times reported that 44 year old Louise Norris had been busted by state health authorities for distributing poisonous eyebrow and eyelash dye through her cosmetics company.
From the Chamber of Horrors exhibit
The most horrifying case of damage done by a commercial dye was that of “Mrs. Brown.” In 1933, the lovely pseudonymous socialite had attempted to enhance her beauty by applying Lash Lure. It took three excruciating months for Lash Lure to destroy Mrs. Brown’s corneas, causing her to become permanently blind. What she hadn’t known was that the primary ingredient of Lash Lure and similar products was aniline dye.
Aniline is a highly toxic substance, more appropriate for tinting leather than coloring human hair. It is extremely dangerous if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And before you get too smug, you should note that aniline is not a relic of the Deco era. It is currently used in polyurethane to manufacture rigid foam, in sealants… and condoms.