When Cars Drove Through the Washington Square Arch

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The Washington Arch in the 1940s.

The Washington Arch in the 1940s.

If you look at this post card from the 1940s the Washington Square Arch looks pretty much the way it does today.  But if you look closer  you will see that the cars are driving through the Arch.  When I bought this postcard from eBay it drove me a little nuts.  Was I seeing right?  Were those cars really going through the Arch?  I kept staring at it over days and weeks checking my perception.   Then I found an old film about New York transportation in the 1930s and 40s and a city bus drove right through the arch!  I went back over that bit of film a few times still thinking I’d seen it wrong.  After all the film was old with lots of cracking. But, yes, a bus did, indeed, go through the arch.  So why didn’t I check this out on the Internet before driving myself crazy?

Well, I tried.  But there is nothing really on it.  What is reported on is the fight between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the late forties and early fifties when Moses had a plan to extend Fifth Avenue into the park.  These Internet articles are written as though there had been no traffic into the park previously, but Moses wanted to put it there.  Actually, Moses wanted to increase the traffic that was already coming into the park and Jane Jacobs wanted to stop him from doing that.  Thankfully Jane Jacobs and her committee won and in 1952 all traffic into the park was stopped.  But prior to this battle Washington Square Park had cars coming into it through the arch.

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Imagine the posts in the center are gone and instead a few cars are driving through the arch. Isn’t that just a little bit scary?

While thinking about this entry I frequently walked down to the arch and tried to picture cars going through it, but it was hard.  Granted, today there is a metal fence and posts that would prevent any vehicles from coming into the park, but if those were taken away how would they do it?  Standing in the freezing in the horrible cold, I tried to picture them fitting through that arch.  It must have been an awfully tight squeeze.  What do you think?

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Plane Spotters

Guest Post by Shareen Knight

My mother’s hands were shaking. It was a sunny summer afternoon towards the end of WW II when we heard the engine of a small plane as it came across the bay. We ran outside, her with the binoculars and me holding the chart of colored drawings of every kind of plane that existed in the 40s. It was her job to report any enemy aircraft, as there was a fear after Pearl Harbor that the Japanese carriers off the coast would send planes to bomb American cities on the West Coast.

Volunteers were organized to keep watch. Thousands of people, high school kids, retired folk, women whose husbands were still overseas fighting, and little kids like me who were unofficial helpers.

As the plane came closer, we held our ground, and soon the plane came into view flying very low. Oh my god, a red circle on the side could only mean one thing, we had spotted our first Japanese fighter plane. The pilot saw us and we saw him. I stood transfixed, a little afraid, but mostly excited. I wondered if he would shoot us. But, he didn’t shoot, instead he tipped his wing toward us and flew by in an arc, as if to say hello-goodbye, and then he headed back toward the Pacific Ocean.

Shareen Knight is a writer and artist/photographer who lives in the coastal mountains of British Columbia. She is writing a novel that takes place in the 40s and 50s in rural America where she was raised, and is also working on a comedic/drama full-length play about the Inuit people and Global Warming. She claims to live in an igloo, but nobody believes her because the snow has all melted.

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When The US Government Told Us What to Wear

During World War 2, in an effort to save precious materials needed for the war, The War Production Board (WPB) was in charge of rationing civilian goods. The first to be rationed was sugar and gasoline. Gradually other items were added like rubber, coffee and meat (somehow poultry didn’t count as meat so it wasn’t rationed). You couldn’t buy a refrigerator or a Bendix washer during the war, but these companies regularly advertised in the popular magazines, reminding customers of all they were giving to the war effort.
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The WPB came out with Limitation Order L-85, which dictated how much cloth could be used to make clothing. Although clothing wasn’t rationed in the US (except shoes*) as it was in Great Britain the WPB made regulations on how much cloth could be used to make any one outfit. The sleeves of dresses now had to be 3/4 length, dresses with no collars were favored. Double breasted suits for both men and women became single breasted. There were no more women’s pleated skirts. (Stanton, 2009a) The WPB’s slogan was,”Control without regimentation,” meaning they didn’t want to tell designers how to initiate their regulations, but they did expect them to be followed. After all, this was being done “for the boys.” Everyone was behind it. Muriel Johnstone, a dress designer, advertising her new regulation dresses used the slogan: “Conserving material for victory.” (OldMagazineArticles.com)

In the interest of following the mandate to use less material—or so they claimed—designers started raising women’s skirts from the mid-calf to just below the knee. The amount of clothes women wore during this time became less and less, especially in Hollywood. Watch the films made during the war. First, you’ll see a lot of those collarless dresses along with the shorter lengths. Also, you’ll note how scanty many of the women are dressed, lots of bare legs, bare arms, cleavage. Compare these outfits with the clothing worn in films made before the war and after. It was “all for the boys.” (Stanton, 2009b)

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*Each individual was allowed 3 pairs of shoe a year, which doesn’t sound terribly harsh to me. Stage Door volunteers were permitted and extra pair of shoes because their shoes wore out quickly from all that dancing.

Stanton, S.L.(2009a) Limitation Order L-85: General restrictions. The United States in War and Peace (PDF)

Stanton, S.L.(2009b) Limitation Order L-85: Fashion and Morale, The United States in War and Peace

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Lilyan Tashman

imagesI had wanted to include Lilyan Tashman in my novel (celebrities make cameo appearances) only she died too soon (1934) for the dates that my characters live. Lilyan Tashman began as a vaudevillian in New York and appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies between 1916 and 1918.  From this she became a Broadway actress and later a Hollywood film actress who some sources say never quite made it to what would be considered “superstar status.”  Despite this she made sixty-six films and made an easy transition from silent films to the talkies.

A Thumbnail of Lilyan

The idea that Lilyan never reached star status may have more to do with an internet rumor made real through repetition than to fact.  True, she is not a household name today, but are we the deciders of what was important to people in another era?  Mann (2001) reports that The Lilyan Tashman Fan Club of the 1930s was composed of thousands of devoted young women.  Reporters for movie magazines considered her “great copy” because during the depression she gave young women fashion advice. (Imagine a Lesbian giving fashion advise? Oh, our modern day stereotypes!) “If you have to go without an extra hat, an extra pair of gloves or even an extra dress, do pay more attention to yourself.  It’s the secret of poise and the very first step in smartness.”  Mann goes on to say, “Tashman played her looks and femininity for all they could get her–“a lipstick” lesbian years before the term was coined.

Lilyan’s Funeral

Maybe Lilyan didn’t reach the top of the Hollywood star list, but she lived a lavish life with her openly gay husband,  Edmund Lowe, and she definitely  had her fans.  When she died an early death at age 37 from stomach cancer on March 21,1934 10,000 of her fans, mostly women, showed up in a frenzy of adoration (that sounds rather Dionysian)  They tore up the grounds trying to get close to her.  They pushed the famous out of their way. Stars like Fanny Brice, Jack Benny and Mary Pickford. Eddie Cantor who gave the eulogy said, it was “the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.”  Several women almost fell into the open grave. There were quite a few injuries that day  (Starr, 2006). Lilyan’s husband Edmund said, “People have said it was bad taste, irreverent.  I don’t think so.  Lilyan didn’t think so either.  It was their way of showing they cared.” (Mann, 2001)

LILYAN: Lesbian, Bi or Straight and Does It Really Matter?

The Lesbian camp

Some sources consider Lilyan a Lesbian (Mann, 2001, McClellan, 2000, Wikipedia, 12/22/13). These sources focus on the fact that her second husband was an openly gay man (not easy in those days) and that she had an affair with both Garbo and Joan Crawford.  McClellan says, “To call Lilyan a lesbian is like calling Casanova a flirt. Lilyan was a whole-hearted and highly skilled missionary for the joy of lesbian sex.”  The sources in the lesbian camp tell of Lilyan seducing women in ladies rooms.  You would think that this activity would have gotten her into a lot of trouble, but she had quite a few takers.  Lilyan believed that any woman would prefer sex with a woman more than with a man if she just gave it a try and she seemed to have convinced quite a few theatrical grande dames and ingenues who kept the secret.

The Bi-Sexual Camp

The most thorough source on Lilyan that I found on the net was a blog called:  Silence is Platinum.  In this blog,  Lilyan is referred to as bi-sexual.  The main reason given is that Lilyan was married to Edmund Lowe.  But Hollywood gay and lesbian “stars” often married each other.  It gave them a higher status than if they appeared at a party with only a “date.”  According to my reading these marriages were not simply “show marriages.”  These couples often developed deep friendships; they held communal property and each partner was given rights of survivorship.

The author of Silence is Platinum blog admires Lilyan for a number of reasons, but s/he is especially fond of Lilyan because she beat up an actress who she found in her openly gay husband’s dressing room.  The implication being that Lilyan held sexual feelings for Edmund that perhaps went beyond friendship. Lilyan was also known in secret circles to have been this jealous and this volatile about her girlfriends.  Garbo, supposedly, broke up with her because of Lilyan’s jealous tantrums. Mann (2001) puts a different spin on Lilyan beating up the actress in Edmund’s dressing room.  Mann thinks perhaps the woman had come for Lilyan, changed her mind and some type of altercation ensued.  He backs up his hypothesis with some plausible data.  Neither woman appeared for the hearing so the charges were dropped. (Mann, 2001)

The Straight Camp

Curiously enough a short biography of Lilyan that appeared in The Windy City Times,  a gay periodical that comes out of Chicago,  seems to imply that she was straight. This article is the only one I’ve found thus far to talk of Lilyan falling “madly in love with Edmund” (Starr, 2006) without mentioning that Edmund was gay.  This really had me perplexed until I looked a little further. This article was a syndicated column and The Windy City Times must have bought it without reading or thinking about it.

Leaving out a celebrity’s sexual orientation is not uncommon. This has been the norm for straight press and biographies up until recently. This started me thinking.  Does it matter if the sexual orientation is left out of the discussion of a celebrity? Celebrity not only includes the movie star types, but what about scientists, authors, artists and others? Is sexual orientation superfluous to an individual’s societal contribution or intricate? What do you think? I hope you’ll give your opinion in the comment section.


Lilyan is the blonde
References:  MacLennan, D. (2000). The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Mann, W.J. (2001) Behind the screen: How gays and lesbians shaped Hollywood 1910-1969. New York, Penguin Group.
Starr, S. (2006).  Starrlight: Lilyan Tashman, Windy City Times, Chicago.

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Tallulah Bankhead

tallulah-bankhead

Tallulah Bankhead

Daddy always warned me about men and alcohol, but he never said a thing about women and cocaine.”  “Wise words” from our lovable, didn’t- give- a- damn bi-sexual.

But even “Tallu,” as open and outrageous as she was, had her struggles with the times she lived in. In the thirties when Marlene Dietrich was cut from a film because she insisted on working with director,  Josef von Sternberg and no one else, in Blonde Venus, the part was offered to Tallulah Bankhead.  Tallulah answered, “I always did want to get into Marlene’s pants.” Marlene Dietrich laughed; the Hays Office did not. Tallu was cut; Marlene Dietrich got her part and her director (McClennan, 2000)

Reference:  McClennnan, D. (2000). The Girls. New York: St.Martin’s Press.

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Gay Couple Together for 58 Years

Ray Fritz, a member of this site who is a fantastic and versatile actor as well as being a knowledgable historian of early 20th century New York City sent me an article that I think is perfect for beginning the New Year. It is about a gay couple who met shortly after World War 2 and stayed together for the next 58 years. I hope you’ll read it and celebrate your own relationships over the coming year.

Thank you, Ray!

New York Times: Elmer Lokkins, Symbol of Same-Sex Marriage Cause, Dies at 94

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The 1940s Christmas Village Putz House

DSC03253When I was a child my mother had these little cardboard houses with glitter all over them.  There was a hole in the back to put a light.  She also had little metal figures to go with the houses.  With them she made a Christmas Village under the tree.  As I grew older the houses and figures were relegated to storage.  Until one day my kid sister and I found them again. We made our own Christmas Village in between our two rooms.  I think we did it a few more Christmases after that.  I remember how much I loved looking at our little town all lit up.  It looked like such a wonderful place to live.  But, as with all children, my sister and I grew up and lost track of the little Christmas Village houses and people.  My parents moved and who knows where these things ended up.

Lately, I found myself longing for them (probably my novel was doing that to me) so I did a little research and I found out the Christmas Village houses and the metal people were a tradition throughout the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. They were sold in five and dime stores and in catalogues like Sears & Roebucks.  The “best” I read came from the 1930’s, during the depression.  Although people could not afford much during that time, they could afford a “putz house” for under the tree.  I wonder if the ones my sister and I played with were from the 1930s when my mother was a girl.  Fascinated by the history of these little houses I headed for ebay where I found plenty for bidding and for sale.  I figured if I couldn’t have the Village from my mother I could begin my own.  So that’s what I did. They make me feel closer to the characters in my novel.

Skiers

These houses were originally made in Japan so, of course, the importing of them stopped during the war.  One story I read was about Ted Althof, a well-known collector, who met an older woman who had worked at a five and dime when Pearl Harbor was bombed.  The day after the bombing her boss told her to collect anything made in Japan and put it on the curb to be taken away. American toy companies began producing them (Martin, 2010).

These houses are amazingly simplistic in their construction–we would never accept them today–but this simplicity seems to add to their charm. Despite being simplistic they are delicately made.  They have little cellophane windows which a breath could  tear.  It’s incredible how many houses have their cellophane windows still in tack.  It makes me a little nervous.  They’ve survived 60 and more years before they got to my tree. What if they can’t survive me?  Such responsibility!

Woman & Man & Bench

What do these houses and metal figures have to do with the lives of LGBT folks (the subject of my novel) living secretly in New York City in the 1940’s?  Well, one of my missions with this novel is to show that LGBT people have been living everywhere through every time and they’ve been celebrating the same traditions that everyone else celebrates, including putting little glitter houses under their Christmas trees.  They have never been alien beings despite having a long history of being treated that way.

Today there is gobs of information on the net about this tradition (its origin and history) and there are collectors who talk to each other in chat rooms and discussion forums.  I don’t think I’ll ever go that far, but there is something very comforting about waking up in the morning and looking down on the quiet little village under my tree and imagining what life might be like in a place like that.

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Martin, M.J. (2010). ‘Putz’ House Christmas Villages of the early 20th century bring out nostalgia for collectors. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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