“Such Friends”: 100 years ago, end of summer, 1921, Midtown Manhattan, New York City, New York

It’s been an interesting summer in New York.

The Ziegfeld Follies of 1921 opened at Broadway’s Globe Theatre, with music once again by Victor Herbert, 62. The leads are Fanny Brice, 29, coming back to the Follies after ten years, singing “My Man” and “Second Hand Rose,” and comedian and juggler W. C. Fields, 41, his fifth time in the Follies.

Ziegfeld Follies of 1921

This was followed two weeks later by the premiere of George White’s Scandals at the Liberty Theatre, a few blocks away from the Globe. The music is by George Gershwin, 22, who hit it big two years ago when Broadway star Al Jolson, 36, heard Gershwin sing his tune “Swanee” at a party and used it in one of his shows.

George White’s Scandals

And just two days after that a new musical, Dulcy, by two young playwrights, both from western Pennsylvania, Marc Connelly, 30, and George S Kaufman, 31, opened just down 42nd Street at the Frazee Theatre. For their first collaboration, Connelly and Kaufman based the lead on a character created by one of their friends they lunch with regularly at the nearby Algonquin Hotel, New York Tribune columnist Franklin Pierce Adams, 39, known to all of New York as FPA.

The duo has already started in on their next musical project, To the Ladies!, set to premiere next year.

*****

One of their other lunch buddies, Robert Benchley, 31, an editor at the humor magazine Life, had finally gotten around to having his first drink while listening to the live broadcast of the Dempsey-Carpentier fight at the midtown speakeasy Tony Soma’s. Soon after, Benchley tried some rye whiskey and realized it smelled just like his Uncle Albert did at family picnics back in Massachusetts.

*****

Benchley’s best friend, and now best drinking buddy, free-lance writer Dorothy Parker, just turned 28, has had another short story in the Saturday Evening Post, “An Apartment House Trilogy,” based mostly on the characters around the flat she and her husband moved to just about a year ago, at 57 West 57th Street. When she sent the piece to the editor, she had warned him that it was “rotten…poisonous.” He didn’t think it was too rotten, but not quite her best. He really wants more of the shorter fluffy things she’s been selling to Benchley over at Life.

Saturday Evening Post, August 20, 1921

Bob has introduced Dottie to one of his other friends, Donald Ogden Stewart, 26, who has had some pieces in Vanity Fair and Smart Set. He’s been hanging out at Parker’s place but doesn’t like joining the others at their Algonquin lunches. They’re vicious. Stewart feels he has to fortify himself with a few drinks before he even gets to the hotel.

*****

Edna Ferber, just turned 36 [but only admits to 34], would love to be invited to one of the Algonquin lunches. Her second novel, The Girls, has just come out and it wasn’t easy to get a national magazine to serialize it. Her story of unmarried Chicago women was too scandalous for most, but finally Women’s Home Companion bought it without any major changes. Not only did FPA praise the way she described his hometown of Chicago, even her own mother conceded that it’s not too bad.

*****

Ferber has asked her friend Alexander Woollcott, 34, the New York Times drama critic, if she could lunch with him at the Algonquin maybe just once?

Alex took a leave of absence from his Times job this summer to go back to his alma mater, Hamilton College in New York state, to finish a book he’s been working on, Mr. Dickens Goes to the Play. He’s written a few chapters about Charles Dickens’ love of theatre and will fill out the rest with sections from Dickens’ novels and essays.

*****

But the biggest news in New York publishing this summer is how the new editor of the New York World, Herbert Bayard Swope, 39, has been poaching columnists from his competitors.

Herbert Bayard Swope

Swope became executive editor of the paper last year and has been making big changes. He thought the page opposite the editorials was a mess, so he cleared out the book reviews and obituaries and now devotes the page to opinion pieces, christening it the “op-ed” page. Swope believes

Nothing is more interesting than opinion when opinion is interesting.”

Those pesky facts can stay where they belong in the rest of the paper.

Swope also stole one of the top columnists at the Tribune, Heywood Broun, 32, another regular Algonquin luncher. Broun was eager to jump. Swope makes clear to him and all his columnists, that they can write whatever they want—within the limits of libel law and good taste. In return, they have to write new copy for each instalment, three times a week. No hoarding a bank of evergreen filler, ready to print any time. Swope wants it all to be fresh.

Heywood Broun

For $25,000 a year, in his column “It Seems to Me” on the op-ed page, Broun can write what he likes—theatre reviews, reports of the most recent football game of his alma mater, Harvard, or campaigns about social issues such as censorship, racial discrimination or academic freedom.

Poaching Broun is a coup. But Swope astounds New York’s literati again by luring the Tribune’s number one columnist, FPA himself, over to the World. Unlike the other writers, FPA is given his own private office to work on his “Conning Tower” columns. One of the first at his new home is about the return to New York of his fellow Algonquin-ite, Alex Woollcott.

Maybe Woollcott will be the next star to jump ship and land on Swope’s World?

There is a recent article about how digital media has affected the “op-ed” page here.

“Such Friends”:  100 Years Ago… is the basis for the series, “Such Friends”:  The Literary 1920s. Volume I covering 1920 is available in print and e-book format on Amazon. For more information, email me at kaydee@gypsyteacher.com.

This fall I will be talking about Writers’ Salons in Dublin and London Before the Great War in the Osher Lifelong Learning program at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Manager as Muse, about Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ relationships with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, is available on Amazon in both print and e-book versions.

If you want to walk with me through Bloomsbury, download my audio walking tour, “Such Friends”:  Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

2 thoughts on ““Such Friends”: 100 years ago, end of summer, 1921, Midtown Manhattan, New York City, New York

  1. I was struck by the fact that Broun was making $25k in 1921 – that must have been a fortune back then. The annual income of someone on minimum wage today is $15,078. According to dollartimes.com : Adjusted for inflation, $1.00 in 1921 is equal to $13.43 in 2021.So Broun was making the equivalent of 330,070. If my math is correct…..

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