Vintage Films Revisits Literary Scene of 1920s New York, with Clips of Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, H.L. Mencken & Other Icons

When young artists, be they writers, painters, or musicians, aim to strike it big, they invariably choose to move to New York. Brooklyn lofts, hopes of finding a likeminded smart set, and the promise of good times beckon countless young men and women to develop their creative careers in a city whose history teems with outsized aspirations and even larger personalities. New York has, after all, been a hub for artistic luminaries since the early 20th century.

In the 1961 documentary entitled New York In The Twenties, above, Walter Cronkite gives a snapshot of the talented crowd that was once drawn in by the city’s cultural riptide during the 1920s. The short video consists of interviews with the publisher Alfred KnopfNew York Herald Tribune editor Stanley Walker; and Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Green PasturesMarc Connelly. Walker plays the part of the consummate New York newspaperman, pining for the days when decent citizens weren’t forced to rub shoulders with the boors now infesting the Westchester and Connecticut trains. Connelly, in more affable fashion, describes the fabled 1920s group of creative minds known as the Algonquin Round Table:

Alexander Woollcott was searing, acid, rude; I used to feel sometimes his only exercise was rancour. But, he was engaging, was compelling, and amusing… Edna Ferber, young, industrious, she used to scare us all to death by her habit of industry. George Kaufman was certainly one of the wittiest of that group. George’s wit… had the sharpness of a silver point etching… There was… Harold Ross, founder of the New Yorker. There was speculation about Ross, his curious head of hair; it was very high, very thick. Somebody once said that that jungle picture Chang had been filmed in it. I think it was George Kaufmann that once said he looked like a dishonest Lincoln. 

A lot of people who knew nothing about the personal lives or the attitudes … of the people at the round table… thought that it was a mutual admiration society and a logrolling organization. It was anything but that because I promise you, the worst pannings ever received for our books or our plays came from the critical friends who were members of that group.

Alfred Knopf, in turn, discusses the glory days of publishers and writers, as well as the genius of H. L. Mencken, whom he describes as “the greatest editor… that I’ve ever known.”

Viewing the halcyon days of New York’s creative scene, with its jazz clubs and speakeasies, it’s no wonder that Knopf, Walker, and Connelly’s accounts leave one with an ineluctable sense of nostalgia. Of course, with its unceasing influx of artists, the city’s substance remains the same today. It’s just that its Bloomberg-era sterility has led to a change in style.

Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.

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