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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