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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Who We Were, Where We've Been

article number 337
article date 04-24-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Lindbergh, Dance Marathons, Stupid Investors and Daring Book Writers … Late 1920s
by Frederick Lewis Allen, assembled by Agnes Rogers
   

From the 1947 book, I Remember Distinctly.

EDITORS NOTE: It is difficult to layup this fantastic coffee table book for a web presentation. In our presentation, pictures follow the commentary specific for that picture.

The progress of aviation during the early nineteen-twenties was exciting—with the Post Office running a hazardous airmail service and with records for speed and endurance being constantly broken—but those records look a little unimpressive today.

When the first triumphant round-the-world flight was made in 1924 by U. S. Army Air Force planes (four starters, two finishers), their flying time was over 15 days and their elapsed time, owing to delays at intermediate points, was no less than 5 months and 22 days!

Here are those Army planes: Douglas biplane cruisers with single Liberty motors.

   

When Charles A. Lindbergh made his sensational point-to-point transatlantic flight in May 1927, public interest in long-distance flying and its possibilities became really intense. Below is young Lindbergh with his plane.

   

Lindbergh’s triumph set off a procession of would-be trans-ocean flyers—Chamberlin and Levine, Byrd, Brock and Schlee, Ruth Elder, and the first woman to turn the trick, the engaging Amelia Earhart.

Next, Miss Earhart is getting a City Hall welcome at New York in July 1928, with her flying mates, Wilmer Stultz and Louis Gordon, flanking her. Acting Mayor McKee is at the extreme right.

   

Here is Miss Earhart with her husband, George Palmer Putnam, planning the Pacific flight in the course of which she was lost nine years later, in 1937.

   

On this page are four contrasting authors of the time. First, Willa Cather, who was then perhaps the most deeply admired American novelist.

   

Then, the Englishman, A. S. M. Hutchinson; his “If Winter Comes” was the big 1922 best seller.

   

Another English writer whose work was very popular here: Margaret Kennedy, author of “The Constant Nymph”, a 1924 favorite.

   

The German, Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”, published in 1929.

   

The riotous twenties were a time of ferment and resurgence in American writing. Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, and others were breaking new ground in fiction.

Young literati hied themselves to Montparnasse, got excited over Joyce, and scorned the American Babbitt from abroad while H. L. Mencken’s “American Mercury” walloped him at home.

New writers, publishing houses, magazines, ideas burgeoned; even book design was livened (compare the jacket of “If Winter Comes” with later ones shown below).

   
   
   

As for the taste of the wider audience, here are the best sellers, fiction and non-fiction, 1921-29. Readers with long memories may detect in the list hints of the public temper: the battle over the proprieties, the concern over calories and vitamins, the worship of business men, the zeal of the materially successful to acquire a background.

1921 – “Main Street”, Sinclair Lewis; “The Outline of History”, Wells.
1922 – “If Winter Comes”, Hutchinson; again “The Outline of History”.
1923 - “Black Oxen”, Gertrude Atherton; “Etiquette”, Emily Post.
1924 - “So Big”, Edna Ferber; “Diet and Health”, Lulu Hunt Peters.
1925 - “Soundings”, A. Hamilton Gibbs; again “Diet and Health”.
1926 - “The Private Life of Helen of Troy”, John Erskine; “The Man Nobody Knows”, Bruce Barton.
1927 - “Elmer Gantry”, Lewis; “The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant”.
1928 - “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, Wilder; “Disraeli”, Maurois.
1929 - “All Quiet on the Western Front”, Remarque; “The Art of Thinking”, Ernest Dimnet.

Among the political leaders during an era when politics was neglected, none more attractively combined friendliness, practicality and principle than Alfred F. Smith of New York—the boy from Oliver Street who became governor of New York State for four two-year terms, was almost nominated for the Presidency in 1924, and was actually nominated in 1928, to run against Herbert Hoover when Calvin Coolidge chose not to run.

   

In ‘24 and ‘28 his name was presented at the party convention by the admirer who is comparing notes with him in the picture—and who is now wearing leg-braces.

   

Below, Governor Smith is accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in a speech in the Assembly chamber at Albany in August 1928. It was a bold speech; instead of straddling on the still ticklish prohibition issue, Smith declared that the Eighteenth Amendment must be amended.

   

But he waged a losing campaign; for not only did many voters knife him because of his Catholicism, but prosperity was in full flood while the stock market boomed, and Hoover was therefore invincable when he said, “Given a chance to go forward with the policies of the last eight years, we shall soon, with the help of God, be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation.”

It didn’t help Smith at the time that this statement made sorry reading later. He was defeated; took over the management of the Empire State Building in New York; fell out with his old friend who had been wont to call him the “happy warrior,” and ended his days a conservative.

Here, Governor and Mrs. Smith are leaving St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Easter Day of 1943; within two years thereafter both of them were dead.

   

We turn now to Wall Street, which during the last two or three years of Coolidge-Hoover prosperity was the blow-torch that kept it at white heat. But first let us glance back to the financial district of New York as it appeared at the time this chronicle opens. Here is a photograph taken looking up Broad Street toward Wall in about 1918 (can sharp eyes distinguish Allied flags and service flags of World War I?) In those days, as you see, the Curb Market actually operated on the curb, outdoors in Broad Street itself. (Incidentally, the buildings shown in this picture have hardly changed since those days, over a quarter-century ago.)

   

The prosperity of the nineteen-twenties was not complete. Much dire poverty, by any humane standard, remained. But after prices dropped in 1920-21, throwing many a company into bankruptcy and gripping many another with fear, the resulting depression and unemployment were short-lived.

Business roared ahead, with the automobile industry (and its allied trades), the radio industry, the construction industry, and others ranging from cosmetics to movie theatres as its bellwethers.

Business men were in the saddle; the labor unions had weakened after their outburst of 1919-20, the penny-saving President kept interference from Washington in check, and the brakes were off. The Florida boom gave this prosperity a brief (and unhealthy) shot in the arm, and when this boom collapsed and construction generally slowed up, unbridled finance provided another and bigger stimulant.

Mergers, stock split-ups, holding-company empires, and speculation went into high gear. By this time the banker and broker were scarcely fallible; Wall Street was the center of economic learning, it was GHQ, it was Mecca.

In March 1928, stock prices, which had seemed to most shrewd observers to be already dangerously high, began really to leap; and the Big Bull Market was off on its fatal binge.

* * *

   

It is perhaps unkind to print here excerpts from the Federal Income Tax form for 1927 (payable in 1928, just as General Motors and Radio began to go through the roof): but if you are in an experimental mood, you can enter your present net income as Item 31 in the Computation below, and use the surtax form at the left, and after a little figuring you’ll get the idea—which is that things were different then. But unless you’re feeling strong, don’t even think of it.

   

* * *

Scarcely exaggerated at all is Carl Rose’s drawing from “The New Yorker”, September 10, 1927, which illustrates the prevalent custom of buying on margin.

   
“Say, Doc, do me a favor. Just keep your eye on Consolidated Can Common, and if she goes bearish tell my broker to sell and get four thousand shares of P. & Q. Rails Preferred on the usual margin. Thanks.”

The trouble with history is that decisions look so easy in retrospect. You know what happened afterwards, and you naturally think any dope ought to have been able to foresee it.

Take the Big Bull Market, for instance. If we look, today, at a graph which shows the course of stock prices in the late nineteen-twenties and early nineteen-thirties, and see the curve going up-hill pretty steadily until September 1929 and then slanting down-hill steeply, we are likely to imagine that almost anybody with a little ready money ought to have had sense enough to buy stocks early, hold on to them until the summer of 1929, and then sell them. What could be simpler?

But it wasn’t like that. We present some graphs which may make the actual uncertainty a little clearer.

The skeptical gentleman is looking at a graph of the course of stock-market prices as it looked at the end of 1927: and he is very naturally saying, “They’ve gone pretty high. Shouldn’t I sell?”

   

Now, we have reached the end of 1928; and the man with the brief case is—again naturally—saying, “This bull market is getting too good to miss.”

   

Now we are in the summer of 1929; the man with the brief case is shouting, “We have entered a new era!”

   

The story is told of a young man who went in 1928 to a leading economist for advice as to how he could best learn about finance. Said the economist, “Well, if you can scare up a few hundred dollars, you might learn something by buying some stock on a good safe margin and seeing what happens,” and he named a good buy. A couple of weeks later the young man came in and cried ecstatically, “How long has this been going on?”

That illustrates what happened, in 1928 and 1929, to hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people who had never before speculated. Business men big and little, housewives, farmers, professors, factory hands followed excitedly the price gyrations of General Motors, Radio, Wright Aeronautical, Montgomery Ward, Electric Bond & Share, Cities Service.

Suburbanites going to the city on the, 8:14 studied and restudied the financial pages; talked earnestly about the prospect that Samuel Insull or the Van Sweringens or Associated Gas & Electric would buy up the shares of this or that company at “attractive prices”; mentioned with awe the names of John J. Raskob, Albert H. Wiggin, Charles E. Mitchell, Mike Meehan; argued as to whether or not it was wise to confine one’s attention to the “blue chips” that the new investment trusts were concentrating upon; but agreed that prices had reached a “permanently high plateau.”

Meanwhile, the profits from stock speculation poured into the marts of trade, poured into the building of bigger and better country clubs, enriched the steamship companies as the successful went on round-the-world cruises, gratified hotel proprietors at Paris, London, Biarritz, Deauville, Nice, Cannes, Venice, St. Moritz, Honolulu, Bermuda, Nassau.

To people accustomed to inflated price levels since World War II, most of the prices of goods in the latter nineteen-twenties do not seem extravagant. But a few, as one looks back now over the newspaper and magazine advertisements of those years, bring one up with a start.

Saks Fifth Avenue advertising sets of flasks (so useful in prohibition days) at prices up to $375 . . . and men’s walking sticks up to $90 each . . . Black Starr and Frost quoting fitted traveling bags at prices from $200 to $4,000 . . . Douglas Elliman publicizing a triplex roof apartment on Fifth Avenue for sale on a co-operative basis at $150,000, with maintenance at 11 per cent . . and this item: “Where, save at Peck and Peck’s, can one buy silk stockings for as much as $500 a pair?”

Below, you will see what happened after September 1929 to those stock-market price levels that the man with the brief case was following on the two preceding pages.

   

But the downward slope from the statistical peak was still quite invisible in the summer of 1929—that summer when serious-minded readers were discussing Walter Lippmann’s “A Preface to Moals”, and theatre-goers were comparing notes on “Street Scene,” and the talkies still made outrageous noises but were outrunning the silent films in popularity;
- when women’s hats completely covered the head from the nape of the neck to the eyebrows;
- when Bobby Jones, Bill Tilden, and Babe Ruth were still the top men in their respective sports;
- when the Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover to investigate prohibition and law enforcement, was beginning its labors;
- when emissaries from Wall Street were selling South American bonds, the Van Sweringens were the miracle men of Cleveland, Insull Utilities Investments was the best buy in Chicago, the wise men of Wall Street were launching the Blue Ridge investment trust, brokers’ loans totaled eight billion dollars, and the sky was the limit.

Stately were the mansions built by the plus-foured princes of finance and industry. The cartoon, by Barlow, is from “The New Yorker” for June 29, 1929.

   
“Oh, just a summer toy.”

Although modern architectural ideas were making headway in the profession, few of the builders of such houses would have any traffic with them; and it was with full approval that “Town and Country”, in 1929, described a Long Island country house as “an affectionate materialization of an architect’s appreciation for details remembered from here and there in France.”

The advertisement reproduced in the next two pictures appeared in “The New Yorker” for November 3, 1928.

   
   

We are always tempted, when we read about an earlier day and its excesses, to feel that everybody must have been more or less crazy then. Of course that isn’t true. We are just about as crazy now as in 1929, and no crazier—our dementia simply takes different forms. But it does seem as if, as the boom era ended, the enthusiasm for daft publicity stunts was especially frenzied. Here, you see ‘Shipwreck” Kelly, noted flagpole-sitter, atop a theatre.

   

Marathon dancing still goes on here and there, but its vogue was for a time remarkable. The girls at the left are having their feet looked after during a $5,000 prize contest at Madison Square Garden, New York, in June 1928, in which 135 couples entered.

   

Dance marathon contests originated in England and Scotland, it is said; at any rate the first American contest was held March 31, 1923. On April 19 of that year a record of 90 hours 10 minutes was set. It did not last. The following picture was taken in the 3,327th hour a dance marathon held in Chicago in 1930—or rather, beginning on August 29, 1930, and lasting (with intervals of time for sleep) into 1931! The girl who has fallen asleep is dancing with her brother as partner.

   

The easiest way to grasp how Lindbergh’s great flight from New York to Paris instantly monopolized national attention is to see how the “New York Times” reported it on the morning of May 22, 1927. If such a newspaper gave it the entire front page and a triple banner headline, you can guess how more excitable papers went overboard.

   

Ever since the young man from the West—“Lucky Lindy,” they called him—had taken off from Roosevelt Field on the morning of May 20, the whole country had been hoping and praying that he would succeed; and it greeted the news of his landing at Le Bourget with a miraculously united cheer.

The personal drama which reached its first climax when the young barnstorming pilot in the “Spirit of St. Louis” flew the Atlantic was to continue into other acts; and so we interrupt the chronological sequence of this book to look briefly ahead at them. But first, a glimpse of Lindbergh’s triumph after that 1927 flight, for it was incredible.

In the next picture, he has returned from Paris to Washington (traveling on the cruiser “Memphis”, sent by President Coolidge especially to fetch him and his plane), and before a vast crowd at the Washington Monument is accepting the Distinguished Flying Cross, just bestowed on him by the President. (Mr. Coolidge is hidden behind him, but Mrs. Coolidge, with a big hat, is to be seen just to the left of the microphones; Secretary of War Dwight F. Davis, hand on hip, is to the right of Lindbergh.)

   

This was only a single incident in an enormous and continuing welcome. On his arrival in this country he received 55,000 telegrams of congratulation. When he went to New York, 200 vessels, 75 planes, and 10,000 troops took part in the ovation; and after it was over the street-cleaners gathered up over ten times as much torn paper as had been tossed from windows at the time of the Armistice.

As he went about the country, front-page headlines followed him, medals and decorations were showered on him. He had become a god.

These demonstrations celebrated a great stunt and something more: a modesty and charm doubly admired at a moment when the country had had its fill of the blatant and the sordid.

In 1929 Lindbergh married Anne Morrow, daughter of the Morgan partner who had become Ambassador to Mexico; and thereafter she flew with him. This picture was taken on their flight to Japan, 1931.

   

The adulation continued—and continued all the more intensely because Colonel Lindbergh, frequently angered at the relentless way in which the crowds pursued him and the newspapermen pestered him, tried—sometimes with a short temper—to dodge the limelight.

He was caught in a paradoxical situation: publicity had had a great part in making him, publicity was in a sense his chief job, and yet he hated the way it enslaved him. But he continued, as a matter of duty, to forward aviation by taking goodwill flights and participating in air celebrations.

In the picture below, he and Mrs. Lindbergh are standing on either side of Mary Pickford at the opening, in July 1929, of the Transcontinental Air Transport’s flight service, which was to carry passengers across the country in forty-eight hours, flying during the daytime and continuing by railroad sleeper at night. Of course it was Lindbergh’s function to pilot the first plane to set out from the airport near Los Angeles.

   

He engaged in research, too, with Dr. Alexis Carrel; in 1931 he and Mrs. Lindbergh made the trip which she described later so movingly in “Flight to the Orient” (the picture of their flight to Japan was taken at Churchill, Canada); they built a house at Hopewell, New Jersey, intended as a remote retreat from an importunate and interfering public; and here their first child was born.

Then came tragedy. On the evening of March 1, 1932, the Lindbergh baby was kidnapped: removed from his bed on the second story of the new house at Hopewell, and spirited away.

The event would have been grim enough if it had happened to an ordinary family; it was additionally grim because instantly, because of Lindbergh’s renown, it was headlined and discussed and argued about from one end of the country to the other, while reporters, detectives, photographers, and rumor-mongers surrounded the unfortunate parents. Lindbergh was even the victim of a brutal hoax: taken off on a boat-trip to meet some supposed kidnappers who did not even exist.

After some ten weeks of this torture, the baby’s body was found dead in a thicket beside a road a few miles from the Lindbergh home. So familiar was the tragedy to everybody that one tabloid ran a headline which declared simply, in huge type, “BABY DEAD.”

Nor was this the end of the ordeal. For the investigations went on and on; after over two years, on September 19, 1934, the kidnapper was arrested; early in 1935 he was tried at Flemington, New Jersey, and convicted; on April 3, 1936, he was electrocuted—and all through those years the Lindberghs’ distress was public property.

The kidnapper was a fugitive felon from Germany by the name of Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The picture below shows newspapermen in the press room across the street from the death house at the New Jersey State Prison, waiting for the moment of the Hauptmann execution in 1936.

   

The dramatis personae of the Lindbergh case became familiar figures to all newspaper readers: Dr. John F. Condon (“Jafsie”), the elderly welfare worker in the Bronx, New York City, who got a message from the kidnapper, made contact with Lindbergh, and was given $50,000 in ransom money, which he handed to the kidnapper in a Bronx cemetery; Colonel Schwartzkopf of the New Jersey State Police; Mr. and Mrs. Oliver Whateley, the Lindberghs’ butler and his wife; Betty Gow, the baby’s nurse, who is shown in the next picture as she came to testify at the trial of Hauptmann early in 1935.

   

And here is Hauptmann, the kidnapper, whose arrest was facilitated by an odd circumstance—the fact that between 1932 and 1934 the country had gone off the gold standard.

   

The ransom money had been paid to him in (marked) gold certificates. By 1934 these had become scarce, so that when the criminal spent them they attracted attention, thus locating him and leading to his capture.

We come now to the third act of the drama. Still in search of seclusion from press and public, Lindbergh (after a flight reconnaissance of transatlantic airways, recorded in his wife’s book, “Listen, The Wind”) moved to England, moved to France, traveled in Germany, reported fully on the prowess of the German Luftwaffe, and returned to the United States to become not simply a leader of the isolationist forces of the country in 1940-41, but one of the harshest American foes of the countries that had given him asylum.

Here is Lindbergh testifying against the Lend-Lease Bill in February 1941, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

   

In the next picture he is sitting on the platform at a huge “peace rally” held in Madison Square Garden, New York, in May 1941. At the left, in a white suit, listening to Lindbergh, is Senator Burton K. Wheeler; beyond Lindbergh are Kathleen Norris, the novelist, and Norman Thomas, Socialist leader.

   

After Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh went to work for Henry Ford at the big bomber plant at Willow Run. This picture of the two men was taken in April 1942, when the greatest of the early exponents of mass production was seventy-nine, and the man who had become a national idol at twenty-five was still no more than forty.

   
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