“While there is Life there’s Hope”: Sophisticated Humor and Current Affairs in “Life” Magazine, 1 March 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been noted here before, Life magazine was launched in 1883 as a magazine covering topics of broad general interest (three late 19th century issues have been featured here for their Christmas content), but, after it was purchased in 1918 by the noted illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his idealized “Gibson Girl” in the early years of the 20th century, it underwent a significant shift.

With vice-president Clair Maxwell taking a leading role, Life moved more into urban sophisticated humor and commentary on current affairs and the arts, targeting well-educated city dwellers. Gibson retained the presidency and his son, Langhorne, was the secretary and treasurer of the Life Publishing Company, but Maxwell and editor Robert E. Sherwood, later a four-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his plays and a history of Franklin D. Roosevelt and key adviser Harry Hopkins and an Academy Award winner for his screenplay of 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives, were the guiding forces behind the publication during the Roaring Twenties.


Among the contributing editors was Robert Benchley, who’d been a successful writer for the New York Tribune and Vanity Fair and who went on to be a successful actor and Academy Award winner for his short film, How to Sleep, and there were many illustrators and cartoonists who contributed heavily to the magazine. The cover of the featured object from the museum’s collection for this post, the 1 March 1928 issue of Life, was John Held, Jr., whose most memorable creation was the lanky, angular flapper that, for many, characterized the Jazz Age.

In this case, Held furnished “The Tattooed Man Goes Collegiate!” which seemed to take the widely known circus performer type and turned it incongruously into a college man and this appears to have been another way to tap into the young adults market the magazine courted during the period. Many of the advertisements were geared toward this market, as well, whether it was for automobiles, apparel and shoes, cigarettes, and many other items.


It was the blending of humor and current affairs and items of general interest that was the main thrust of the magazine’s content and this post focuses on just some of the examples that perhaps best represent the focus of the publishers. For instance, Life was decidedly against Prohibition, which was then in effect for eight years and another five to go before the great social experiment to squelch almost all manufacturing, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

So, the publication it had a pithy commentary that James M. Doran, the Prohibition Commissioner in the federal government, warned the public that liquor was costly, bad for the health, and could get drinkers in deep with the law and it referred to him, therefore as “the original triple-threat man.” Elsewhere it offered a glossary of Prohibition terms that satirically defined and linked such terms as “Speak Easy,” “Home Brew,” “Medicinal Purposes,” “Hip Flask,” and “Wet Issue.” It’s a bit hard to explain, so the reader is referred to the accompanying image.


While Benchley was chiefly the drama section editor, he did offer an “Introductory Essay” for “Political Parties and Their Growth,” which seemed very relevant for that presidential election year, but may do so for our own midterm season in 2022. Among his commentaries was that:

In writing a history of the political parties of the United States (to which this is the introductory essay and possibly the last chapter as well) one must bear constantly in mind the fact that there are two separate and distinct parties, the Republicans (a clever combination of two Latin words, res and publicae, meaning “things of the public”) and the Democrats (from the Greek demos, meaning something which I will look up before this goes to the printer’s).

Benchely joked that the Federalist Party of the early days of the republic “became, through the process of Natural Selection and a gradual dropping-off of its rudimentary tail, the Republican Party as we know it to-day” and he cracked that “as a general rule, Republicans are more blonde than Democrats,” a striking comment given the demographic makeup of the two today.


He continued that, with respect to articulating the platforms of each “from their original sources to their present-day clearly defined and characteristic chaos,” he intended, in future installments, to pair “very dull statistical matter and talk about Inflation and Nullification” with “comical stories and snatches of current songs of the period.”

Benchley added that, he might as well, cut out the discussion of nullification and inflation, while noting the stories of minor parties, such as the Free Soil, Mugwumps and the St. Louis Cardinals, the latter went on to win the National League pennant before being swept in the 1928 World Series by the all-powerful New York Yankees.


After acknowledging that such discussions would not be very enjoyable, the humorist mused that “as a matter of fact, in outlining the subject matter of this history the thought has come to me that it shapes up as a pretty dry book and I am wondering if perhaps I haven’t made a mistake in undertaking it. . . .Oh, well, we’ll see.” He then listed fictional colleagues who provided data for his work and thanked a collector of shells for loaning them because otherwise “I would have had nothing to do when I was not writing the book.”

In his “Drama” column, Benchley wrote about several plays, all of which had short runs on Broadway, excepting the suspense thriller “The Silent House,” which was a hit (and was also made into a British film in 1929) in three Broadway theatres through October. It is notable for our modern sensibilities that the critic referred extensively to the villainous Chinese characters:

There are some things that we just refuse to be frightened by in the theatre, and one of them is a Chinaman. Chinamen, at best, are not very real to us. We wouldn’t be at all surprised to see the best Chinaman in the world take off his make-up and prove to be Lon Chaney [the film star known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”]. So, when they appear on the stage in a mystery play, we don’t believe in them sufficiently to be swept into any devilry that they may be up to—and you may be sure that they are up to some.

Later, the columnist stated that, in one scene when an Anglo character is about to be attacked by a Chinese character, “the entire performance had to be stopped for a full half-minute while the lady members of the audience, as one woman, screamed out a warning” and one theatergoer “even called out to the sneaky Chinese to ‘wait a minute,’ thinking doubtless that if she could have just a few words with him she could appeal to his better nature.”


Another item that is striking for just how far removed from current thinking such topics are is “Femasculinity” by John C. Emery, also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. His brief piece was based on a report that male cosmetics were being covered in the press of Paris, so Emery had steelman Ralph Arbuthnot ask bank president Claude Sweetly “my dear, what is that lovely lip rouge I’ve seen you using?” to which the reply was “Oh, darling, have you noticed it, too? Every one’s been asking me about it, and I’m so thrilled! It’s called ‘Nom du Chien’ [French for “For Goodness Sake!”]—isn’t that ducky!” The two then discussed facial cream before the banker called out “I really must go, dear. I’ve a horrid old directors’ meeting at two and I mustn’t geep the gir—ah—boys—waiting.”

Another attempt at gendered humor was “Heroines That Might Have Been” by Cyril B. Egan. His four examples began with “Miss Christina Columbus,” who, on 12 October 1492 discovered America but had to stop “to dive into her vanity case and touch up her winsome Cupid’s-bow mouth” and asking an officer, “Pardon me, mate, but are my lips on straight?” This was followed by “Miss Inez De Soto” whose 1519 landing in the Americas led her to ponder that the sweet smell of flowers reminded her “of her favorite toilet water [so] that she decided on the spot to call the land Florida.”


On 4 July 1513, “Miss Gertrude Balboa” stood gazing at the “wondrous waste of waters shortly to be known as the Pacific Ocean.” As she did so, she clapped enthusiastically and cried “Cute! Adorable, simply stunning!” before walking to the water to see her reflection and adding, “and it can hardly be denied that I’m looking rather fetching myself!” Finally, in 1521, “Miss Miranda Cortez” entered Tenochtitlán, later México City, and “promptly powdered her nose, called for a scented cigarette, and claimed all the land conquered [regardless of the terrible brutality that actually happened with Hernan Cortez’ devious conquest of the Aztecs] in the name of Spain.”

Sterling Patterson proposed a new organization called the S.P.C.A., but his was to be the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults” and to protect them from the abuses of children. For example, “between the hours of 9 P.M. and 10 P.M. children shall neither be seen nor heard. This is to be known as the Adults’ Hour.” Also, adults were to be allowed some “self-expression” so that magazines were not torn from their hands, books cut into pieces and “they should be allowed to play their own little adult games in their own little adult ways.”


Because “adults need calm and quiet for the best development of their little minds,” children were not to be loud or rambunctious when adults were working at home. The grownups were also to have a bath one hour before dinnertime and grandfathers were to be worked only six hours per day by little ones, given a rest on Sunday and given “an extra ration in his stall.” Patterson ended by proclaiming, “Act, Adults of America, before it is too late! Remember—you owe it to your children; for they, after all, are the adults of to-morrow!”

A contribution called “How I Furnished a Two-Room Apartment on Fifty Thousand Dollars” was attributed to “P.G.W., who knows,” and this appears to have been P.G. Wodehouse, perhaps known for his dim-witted member of the “idle rich,” Bertie Wooster, and Bertie’s much-wiser valet, Jeeves. In his mock budget for the decoration of his flat, the writer itemized the costs for having bookshelves built, a table painted, and a new rug installed, but you have to see the listing to appreciate the humor (again, see the accompanying image!)


The main editorial page includes reference to a bill from Rep. Louis A. Frothingham, a Republican from Massachusetts who died several months later and who “has proposed in the House that the nations [of the world] abolish submarines as instruments of war.” Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg “says all right so far as the United States is concerned, if all the other nations will agree,” but the editors simply offered, “but, of course, they won’t,” arguing that “submarines are the defense of nations with small navies against nations with big ones” and that “the small-navy nations will not agree to abolish them.” It asked whether airplanes should likewise be prohibited in warfare and the averred,

Proposals to do away with submarines so as to make war nicer are just a way of saying, “Put on your gloves, gentlemen, before you start anything.” The next war, if we have one, will have all the latest improvements and it will not be nice at all. There is no use of arranging formalities, for it won’t be formal. Gloves will not be worn.

Another item to note concerned a Russian who, the editors observed, asked people “to study the map of the world and notice that the lands where white people live are grouped around the Atlantic Ocean” and that “the countries so grouped he sees to be in a partnership, the interests of which as a whole its members ‘have to take into account as a first moral charge on any international policy they may set in motion.'”


Ridiculing this statement, the magazine exclaimed,

Some sense in that! Asia is a large place. Russia in Europe is quite big. Spilling over into Asia it is enormous. Persia, China, India! Lots of people! It does not look just now as though they had the talent or the means to organize modern warfare, but they are all waking up, moving quite fast like everything else, getting practice in knocking off one another’s blocks, and what they will be in another ten years is not easy to calculate. Asia, first and last, has made very considerable disturbances in the world. Perhaps it has finished, but perhaps not.

All that is proper food for thought for people who are worried about the possibility of competition for naval war strength between the United States and England. It may comfort them a little, perhaps, to reflect that is very, very much likelier that Great Britain and the United States will be on the same side in the next war than that they will be opposed.

Given that the next presidential election, truly consequential as it will be, is not really all that far away, it is interesting to read that the powerful Republican Senator William Borah, the “Lion of Idaho,” reportedly “feels that one four-year term is enough for a President” and “would have a law to fix it so.” Blithely, the editors rejoined, “Oh, well; he knows we can’t oblige him about that” and added “Tut! Tut! All these tinkerings of the President’s term of office are efforts to be wiser than events.”


It seemed to the magazine that “the sentiment against a third term is enough,” though it added that if a prohibition was to be enacted, “it should be a third elective term” so that those examples in which a vice-president, like Calvin Coolidge (who, however, decided not to seek re-election in 1928), ascended because of a death or resignation of the chief executive “should be left to the judgment of the voters.”

This did not really become a pressing matter until Franklin D. Roosevelt won four elections and died in office in April 1945, not far into his last term, leading to the passage in 1947 and ratification four years later of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, which limits presidents to two full terms and no more than one term if they served more than two years of another President’s term.


Finally, we have to end with a stanza of a poem from the cleverly named “N[on] D. Plume” and his or her “Ballade of a Fortunate Strike,” paired with the accompanying advertisements for Marlboro and Lucky Strike cigarettes—something else that has long passed from our modern publications:

Then blessed be he who so shrewdly wrote

These bright advertisements that declare

Tobaccos—lovingly toasted—coat

The vocal cords with a velvet layer,

For now with eloquent savoir faire

I grace the talented Broadway set—

And all on a couple of packs, I swear!

I’m smoking a certain cigarette.

This issue of Life is certainly an illuminating and interesting look at some facets of late 1920s American life. We have about a dozen numbers of the publication, so will share others in future posts.

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