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By Burnham, Alexander | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

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Burnham, Alexander, The Virginia Quarterly Review


There were two moments in my father's day that I recall with particular fondness. The first was at the breakfast table where each morning The New York Times awaited his close perusal. As he read the gray, disciplined columns, he would express his doubts about an especially rash effort by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to pull the United States out of its Great Depression and repeatedly he would voice his anxieties over Adolf Hitler's ominous instructions to the German Army to "fulfill its duty."

The second moment was in the evening, after dinner, when he would settle down into a comfortable chair to read the day's last edition (it was called the Sporting Final) of the somewhat snappier New York Sun for the late news, the closing stock prices, and perhaps a review of actress Gertrude Lawrence's most recent Broadway rendition of a sexy English lady as conceived by Noel Coward.

When war eventually came, after the German Army had "fulfilled its duty" and Japan had decided to challenge the United States, a study of The Times and The Sun sometimes became deeply personal as both newspapers began listing Washington's "honor rolls" of the dead, the wounded, and the missing in action.

Although newsmen like William L. Shirer were delivering disturbing reports from Europe over static-impaired broadcasts, raucous radio and television with their strident voices were still years away. It was Jack Benny time rather than noisy reporters.

For my father and other members of his generation, newspapers were the orderly and measured way to monitor a turbulent century. They relied on the rational judgment of carefully selected cosmopolitan newspapers which they viewed as intelligent and reliable. The writing was conservative, the advertisements were modest, and the graphics were sober and inelaborate.

Of course it wasn't all journalistic temperance in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Yellow journalism was in full flower and the urban tabloid press was taking the early steps toward today's nationwide media excess of celebrity and sex. Tabloids like New York's Daily News and Daily Mirror and columnists such as Walter Winchell had plenty of high jinks to write about.

Young women, who had won the right to vote in 1920, were raising their skirts and editorial eyebrows as they pierced the doors of Prohibition speakeasies to drink forbidden gin with the men; New York's playboy mayor, Jimmy Walker, was always good for a jolly headline-he compared the first woman to swim the English channel, the daughter of a Manhattan butcher, to Moses crossing the Red Sea or Caesar crossing the Rubicon; and goldfish swallowing was all the rage after a Harvard University student named Lothrop Withington Jr. gulped down one of the wiggling animals as press cameras flashed, thus confirming Harvard's preeminence among America's educational institutions.

After Wall Street crashed in 1929 and the resulting Depression rolled on well into the 1930's, the newspapers found relief in their most reliable pick-me-up: pretty girls. Reporters and photographers couldn't get enough of rich debutantes dancing in the arms of college boys in white ties and tails at swanky cotillions in ritzy hotel ballrooms. Life magazine put pulchritudinous deb Brenda Duff Frazier on one of its covers to cheer up an American population grown weary of hungry children in West Virginia, and demagogue Huey Long of Louisiana inspired lively headlines as he hoodwinked the innocent by promising every American an income of $5,000 a year by breaking up the fortunes of the country's millionaires.

But the debs would soon give way. Hollywood's pretty faces moved into the newspapers of America as movie palaces became the dream emporiums of Main Street, U.S.A. Indeed, Hollywood was establishing its leadership role of American culture. Tough guys like Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney gave swell impersonations of the Chicago gangsters so beloved by city editors and actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow were portraying with sultry authority a succession of red-hot broads who delivered such racy lines as "Men aren't interested in a sheet of virgin-white paper. …

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