Sunday, April 18, 2010

Liberty 1929-03-02

Chalk it up to Spring fever or March Madness, but I've been noticeably absent a good while here on my blog. I know it's fun when a blog keeps a steady pace, but erratic is as erratic does - let's see if I can't get back into the rhythm - -

As promised, let's take a look at a couple of issues of Liberty, an absolutely classic American magazine. Liberty spans from its beginnings in the roaring twenties in 1924 published by McCormick Patterson, into the depression and the magazine's purchase by the extraordinaire Bernarr MacFadden in 1931 who would publish the magazine until 1942 when a final publisher would take the reins (doubling the sale price from a nickel to a dime) until the magazine's demise in 1950. During the magazines heyday (which I'd guess was the early through mid-30s), the magazine was the second most popular slick in America behind only The Saturday Evening Post. The appeal of the magazine was universal, the variety format had something for all interests. Presidents, sports heroes, religious leaders, and movie stars all wrote in Liberty, there's a sort of intimate air that I can't really think of other magazines matching. And the fiction is truly incredible. No less than 100 films have been made from stories published in Liberty, and the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs, P.G. Wodehouse, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Dashiell Hammett first published stories within. Mix in true crime, Hollywood commentary from Adela Rogers St. Johns, and news coverage from the world over and you have a little something for everybody, a unique reflection of the times. I've witnessed the delight of at least a few historians of the 30s as they've discovered the portal into the past these magazines offer. It's hard to imagine today that a presidents or international dignitaries might write articles in a national magazine, but indeed they did.

Certain issues are highly prized by collectors, but you can find very affordable copies of Liberty if you look for lots of them on ebay. For say $20 you can often get a stack of 5-8 issues chock full of good reading. One well known trademark of the magazine is that it listed a reading time for each article, and I'd say you are doing very well if you can digest them that quickly. The good news is that the wiki for the magazine indicates that the entire magazine's run is slated to be google-fied so many more people will be discovering what a national treasure Liberty is. I've scanned a couple issues of the magazine from my small collection and will go ahead and post them both and point out some items of interest, starting with the earlier issue, to give a snapshot of the magazine before and during MacFadden's ownership.

I found tonight's issue in a local antique mall, and I have to say I particularly love finding magazines the old-fashioned way, by rooting them out in flea markets, antique shops, at estate sales, antique bookshops, and wherever they might be found. I've found a seller in one of my flea markets that has a little stack of Liberty from this exact era, and I find myself going back every once in a while to buy up her remaining issues one at a time. These earlier issues of Liberty are a little bit taller and wider than the issues that would come and have high production values, elegant even. Big thanks to McCoy for his ever excellent editing assistance on this issue.

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Get the scan here.

In my rush to introduce the magazine, I didn't even mention the art which is truly excellent. This piece is from Leslie Thrasher, an under-celebrated artist who did many great covers for Liberty and other slicks. A short bio on Thrasher is here. The editor begins on the contents page of the magazine with a defense of the boisterous couple on the cover, telling the prudes where to go. In today's parlance, keeping it real, yo.

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Towards the back of the issue, the story behind the cover is given, a little exposition. It would be neat to see all these Lil and Sandy covers and stories in sequence, I think it's a pretty cool device.

The mag opens with a story from a frequent contributor, Achmed Abdullah. Abdullah's fantastic life story is quickly told by wiki here and the excellent Pulp Rack has posted a nice bibliography of Abdullah's works here. Abdullah wrote the novel and screenplay for Thief of Baghdad (1924), and his The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) was also made into a successful film.

His contribution in this issue is "The Breckenridge Necklace" and opens in cosmopolitan hotel in Fulahistan, a "near eastern" sultanate, about to plunge into conflict as the sultanate ignores his vizier's warnings that the people will no longer allow immoral foreigners to flaunt their values. The splash:

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The artist is Fortunino Matania (bio and gallery page here), but I gotta say the style of the art doesn't match the story. Here's his centerpiece on the next pages:

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I say I'm not sure the art matches the story because the art has an old-world feel, and the story is anything but old-world. This is the roaring 20s, Fulahistan or no, and Abdullah does a great job of setting the scene for our heist caper (if the word "necklace" is in the title, you can bet what's coming). These rich and cosmopolitan partiers drink the day away, but sex and flirtation is the real engine. Abdullah's dialogue is popping with innuendo and very fun to read. The story kind of dovetails and doesn't play out very evenly, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Following the Abdullah piece is a bit of Hollywood tell-all. Americans bemoan the centrality of the celebrity in American culture, but really this preoccupation goes way back, dishing the dirt sells copy and here is Elsie Janis (an exhibition put together by Ohio State University Libraries on Ms. Janis is here) playfully writing on the Barrymore clan.

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The second piece of fiction is "Song in the Dark" by Barry Benefield, what you might call a spinster's tale. Annie May has spent her life devoted to her work as the President of the firm's secretary, but what's she to do when he passes and and her eyesight fails? Talk about taking your work home with you... The splash by Ray Sisley:

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Always a sure attraction, Liberty often gave sports heroes a little space to write in their own words, this issue features Jack Dempsey's 10 training rules. I've adopted #2 as a routine in the morning, a little centering first thing in the morn

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Perhaps my favorite article in the issue is "The Mystery of the Puritan Girl" regarding Lizzie Borden, one of a series of ten articles on real life mysteries.. Sure, I've heard the grisly nursery rhyme, but the details of the case are chilling and I did not realize that it had gone to trial. A diagram of the murder scene, a domestic cross-section if you will, cute and twisted all at the same time:

I don't know whether to find the last line ironic or comforting, but I'm sure this episode would make a nice psychological horror film

The third piece of fiction is Nippy and Nell from Cosmo Hamilton, a story of a vaudeville clown in need of an assistant. Cutesy, but it helps wash down the tale of Lizzie Borden, heh heh. Illustrated by Arthur Little, I liked this spot illo.:

Another fun entry is "Love Letters of an Interior Decorator" from author/cartoonist Bert Green (Lambiek page here) in which he describes life on an ocean liner during prohibition, one big drunken party. I'll go ahead and put up both pages

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Also, a piece on aviator Al Williams, Vox Pop, 2 crosswords (one easy, one hard), Figures of Fashion by Bettina Bedwell (Libery was well known for featuring layouts from top fashion designers), cooking tips on freshening stale breads, Part 7 of "The Murders on the Roof" by Edward Doherty with art by Dalton Stevens, Part 8 of M.R. Werner's "Bryan: An American Phenomenon," and more.

I'll close my examination of this issue with some of the advertising art from the issue which is very nice. Back next time with another issue of Liberty, this time from the mid 30s...

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My bro has an International sitting out in the field he's planning on restoring some day, so I gotta include this one:

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Walker Martin said...

Last saturday's NY Times had an article about LIBERTY's issues soon being available online. The first issue(May 10, 1924), has a great cover showing the new LIBERTY joining the other great slicks like the SATURDAY EVENING POST, COSMOPOLITAN, etc.

By the way, welcome back. I was getting worried since it is over a month since your last post.

darwination said...

No need to worry about me if I stray now and then, Walker, they say sunshine is good for the complexion ;). I have many, many avenues of inquiry I mean to meander at darwinscans, so you haven't seen the last of me by any means.

A pal pointed that NYT article out to me last night even before your reply. I referenced it in tonight's post. I'm still digesting the title term "Digital CPR". The magazine is still vital - just not the public's interest in it! Hopefully the need and opportunity to preserve and digitize our wealth of magazines onto the web will spark an interest in this and the many other vintage-but-vital magazines that were so central to American life and culture in the days before television.