“It Was Stark, Raving Business Bedlam”: TIME, the Weekly Newsmagazine, 21 October 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The quote in the title of this post refers to a drawing, under the title of “The Big Brass Ring” and accompanying article in the 21 October 1929 edition of TIME magazine reproducing the frenzied scene at the coffee and sugar exchange in New York as traders were in a tizzy over the sale of shares of Brazilian coffee. Prices dropped dramatically “down 200 points for two days” with “the loss of millions to coffee hoarding speculators” who were “overloaded and waiting for a rise.”

While the manipulation was going on for about three years, “last week was the climactic scare point” and the result was that New York business figures “hopped on each others toes. They hopped higher on camp stools. When they could neither hop high enough or how loud enough to make a buyer or seller on the other side of the ring understand, they bent and low and plunged for the round brass railing” and yelling as “arms waves and fingers waggled.”

It was reported that Brazil produced half the world’s coffee and this generated significant wealth for the country’s largest planters, who comprised “a gigantic, cooperative Coffee Trust” in keeping supply low and prices high. Inevtiably, as more people got into the game, keeping those latter artificially inflated meant that the government took to stashing product to the extend that more than 13 million bags were piled, equivalent to a year’s crop, with recent yields bumper ones. Consequently, there loomed “an eventual catastrophic crash” and “last week’s howling and hopping seemed of ominous significance.”

Otherwise, the publication contained its usual menu of material from some twenty topics from business to domestic and foreign news to religion and science to sport and theatre. In the “Letters” feature, Jim Tully of Hollywood responded to a letter from the warden of Wisconsin’s prison system warning that, if TIME didn’t change its editorial attitude, concerning a positive review of a book called You Can Escape that detailed 19 successful such instances from prison, it would not be permitted in his lockups. Tully rejoined that he knew some jail wardens and “I found them, without exception, as illiterate as sea gulls and less graceful.”

He predicted that “in some far day wardens will not be appointed by politicians who are as ignorant of the vast wells of human nature as themselves” and “they will realize that compassion and understanding are not merely words in a dictionary.” They key was to study sociology and Tully averred that “any of the boys in his keeping will tell him about the wrongs of humanity.” Tully was, at the time, as well-known figure, being a hobo as a tee, having written some successful novels, working as a publicist for film titan Charles Chaplin, and enjoying some limelight in Hollywood.

Another letter was from R.L. Larson of Los Angeles, who took exception to the magazine’s statement that, when it came to serious music, San Francisco had a “lusty rival” in the Angel City. On the contrary, Larson proclaimed, there was no such situation and that “San Francisco was for many years rather jealous of the growth of Los Angeles,” which was approaching double the population of the longtime dominant west coast metropolis.

Larson asserted that “San Francisco has its own problems and so has Los Angeles” and offered that the jealousy was diminished as of late “and residents of that city have undoubtedly found it more profitable to tend to their own knitting that to carry on a one-sided hate party.” Calling himself “a staunch Republican,” Larson, however, then closed that “San Francisco can console herself with the fact that she isn’t a nigger haven like Los Angeles is turning out to be . . . ” and added “I certainly deplore this black republicanism with which the Nation is being afflicted.” This blatant racism, allowed to be published by the magazine, is yet another reminder of how pervasive these attitudes really were.

In the “National Affairs” section, a portion was devoted to “The Hoover Week,” detailing the activities of President Herbert Hoover, what transpired in Congress, and discussed the continuing preoccupation with trade tariffs (this issue still very much in the news lately.) Also of note was the recent confirmation of Harry Frank Guggenheim, of the powerful New York financier family and whose visage adorns the issue’s cover, to be ambassador to Cuba.

So, too, under the heading of “Corruption” was a piece about former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall, who was on trial on a charge of accepting bribes to lease government oil land to Harry Sinclair and Los Angeles’ tycoon Edward L. Doheny. In fact, the magazine closed its piece by observing that “the most interested trial-witness was OIlman Doheny, for should Mr. Fall not be convicted of having been bribed by Mr. Doheny, the indictment of Mr. Doheny as briber would be dropped.” As a matter of fact, though Fall was, on the 25th, convicted, Doheny was, the next spring, acquitted.

The “Prohibiton” portion featured a photo of Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, considered the “Father of the 18th Amendment” because of his introduction of the basic wording back in 1913, but noted that the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for the amendment, did not “prevent any thirsty U.S. citizen from buying a drink” and it was added that “[Boot]’Leggers and speakeasy proprietors are lawbreakers only because they sell liquor and transport it.” This meant that “their customers may be scofflaws but they are not criminals.”

The piece continued that, during debate about the passage of the enactment of the amendment was being debated, there was a proposal by Senator Thomas W. Hardwick of Georgia to add that the purchase and use of liquor should be included in the legislation. Sheppard argued against this, claiming that banning the maufacture, transport, sale and possession of alcohol was enough and “he did not add that it would probably have been impossible to pas the Amendment or the Act with purchase and use prohibited.”

Recently, however, the senator had second thoughts about at least one of those elements, specifically that “he did want to amend the Volstead Act to make the buyer of liquor equally guilty with the seller” though he was not willing to go so far as to add the user. His amendment, however, was sent to the judiciary committee, where it looks to have died, even as the “Wets” decried its potential effects on millions of people, while “Drys” split on whether to support it.

In the Foreign News section, attention was given to the visit to America of British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, who’d returned to the office he held for much of 1924 before his Labour government collapsed and the Conservatives returned to power. In June 1929, however, his party took the majority of seats in Parliament and MacDonald again became the PM. Among European news was the tidbit that Spain’s dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera issued an order that, because “we eat too much, work too little, and stay up too late at night . . . we must change these habits” so that, he, “undaunted by rebellious spirits, will work out a formula for accomplishing this colossal task” which would constitute “the salvation of Spanish economic life and development.

In Afghanistan, it was reported, Habibullah Kalakani, who seized control of the country at the beginning of the year from Amanullah Khan, emir and king for a decade after the nation’s independence from England, after a civil war that began in 1928, was “harassed by the lean, ruthles, white-chinned Nadir Khan, ill-famed for boiling his captured enemies in oil.” On 13 October, Nadir, the minister of war under the previous regime before he was exiled for disagreements with Amanullah, returned to the country and deposed the 38-year old Habibullah, who would be executed on the first of November. Nadir’s rule lasted four years until he was assasinated by a student while visting a high school graduation ceremony. Interestingly, a quote from an Afghan dplomat stated “I may best characterize the Nadir Khan a sort of George Washington . . . he may prefer to experiment with some sort of a republic.”

In the “People” column were brief references to two Los Angeles residents. One was George Lemesneger, a businessman dealing in real estate and wine, who’d died in 1926. After his estate, said to be worth up to $8 million, was settled by a daughter, Jeanne, who’d returned to the Angel City from a St. Louis convent, she discovered the week before the issue went to press that “she had inherited some $1,500,000” but Sister Philomene, as she was known, decided “that she would return to convent life.”

The other figure was another religious figure, Minnie “Ma” Kennedy, the mother of “soul-saver” Aimee Semple McPherson. The reference here was to the fact that “Ma” prevailed in a $50,000 breach of promise of mariage lawsuit filed against her by the Revered Harry H. Clark, a “Seattle divine. It was added that, after the case was decided, “she was surrounded by crowds of spectators who congraulated her, [and] smacked her hands.” Not mentioned was that mother and daughter were in the midst of a rift, previously discussed in a post on this blog, but which was soon ended with a dramatic Christmas gift at Sister Aimee’s Angelus Temple and then followed by more mother-daughter drama!

The “Business & Finance” department contained capsules abvout David A. Schulte, who owned a chain of what would now be dollar stores, but which was seeing a sharp decline in stock values, and the powerful glass and can companies, Owens-Illinois Glass and Continental Can, which merged just after the death of the former’s executive committee chair through the creation of the Continential Containers, Inc. holding company.

In the “Deals” section was news that the new Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, replacing the 1893 original on Fifth Avenue where the Empire State Building was erected and slated for completion in 1931 would cost north of $28 million. The costs was covered by the New York Central Railroad, which owned the land and had operated a power plant at the Park Avenue site, a sale of company stock and an $11 million bond issue that went on offer the prior week.

Returning to Hollywood, there was also the “Fox Jubilee,” celebrating the quarter-century of the Fox Theatres (separate from Fox Films Corporation) empire. It was noted that, in nearly half of the 1,100 venues nationwide, those in the audience heard from William Fox that they “buy outright as many shares as they could afford of Fox Theatres Corp.” because of the expected profits that would come from future expansion.

Not only would Fox add massive screens filling the entire proscenium of any given theater, but he would devote about a quarter of his estimated $36 million fortune toward “visual-oral instruction in schools” in which up to 20 million children “will have school hours reduced from six to three per day by listening to a talkie ‘educator’ instead of to a teacher. He also intended to have talking films of famous surgeons during operations and of religious figures in their churches.

There was, however, concern about that feeling that Fox’s finances were not as strong as he held, though TIME added “however poor Fox Theatres may appear to some people on a strictly investment basis, the greatest assert the company has, and one that should appeal to Fox patrons, is the management of William Fox.” Yet, the sheer expense of converting his theaters to his “Movietone” system and the onset of The Great Depresion caused his empire to collapse. He lost control of his businesses in 1930 and he went bankrupt several years later, followed by a prison stint for obstructing justice after trying to bribe the judge and then perjured himself about it.

In the middle of the issue, there is a three-page advertisement taken out by Henry Luce, the publisher of TIME, to promote his new “de luxe” monthly business magazine called Fortune. The publication, which Luce’s partner Briton Hadden was against before his death earlier in 1929, was to “give to the record of Modern Industrial Civilization a distinction comparable to the intelligence which business now attracts, and upon which it must increasingly rely. The $10 yearly subscription, it was added, was “not only because of the great production expenses, but also because, if the magazine is good enough, this unique price year after year wil cheerfully be paid by FORTUNE readers.”

Despite the onset of the Great Depression, the new magazine, the first issue of which appeared early in 1930, succeeded. Known for its Fortune lists, including the 500 and 100 largest American companies in terms of revenue, the magazine has been owned for the last few years by a Thai billionaire, Chatchaval Jiaravanon.

As for the Great Depression, it was initiated just three days after the publication date of this issue. Black Thursday, the 24th, saw some 13 million shares traded that day after a masive speculative bubble was no longer sustainable. Five days later was Black Tuesday, with another 16 million shares traded, with a huge number totally worthless and investors borrowing money “on margin” to buy stock wiped out.

The situation worsened in the next few years and, though Walter P. Temple did not invest heavily in stocks, his own problems in real estate and oil speculation came to a tipping point during this period, leading to the loss of everything, including his cherished Homestead in July 1932, as the Depression reached its worst point with waves of bank failures across the country. So, it is interesting to peruse the pages of this issue of TIME knowing that a disaster was in the offing, though there was no way to know that reading the magazine.

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