Many years ago on a hot summer Saturday, I helped my wife’s mother’s second husband clean out the home of his first wife’s aunt, an elderly woman he had looked after for many years, hurrying over to close her windows when a thunderstorm was coming, doing her grocery shopping, driving her to the doctor. She had shared the house with her sister and brother-in-law, but they were dead, and now she was in a nursing home. I was a willing volunteer. I love old stuff. I love kitchen drawers, desk drawers and dresser drawers. I love basements and attics, especially attics. In this particular attic, where the temperature was about 110 degrees, I found an old green metal box with a tight fitting lid. It was amidst some newspapers and magazines that were destined for the curb. I lifted the box’s lid, and said aloud, “Eureka.” A latter-day Aladdin, I had stumbled upon the brother-in-law’s personal library.
On top was a copy of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, a title I had always thought of as mythical. With trembling hands I put the lid back on, carried the box downstairs into cooler strata, went outside and said to my wife’s mother’s second husband, “I found some magazines. Can I take them home?” And he said, “Sure!” It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
At home, in the cool of the evening, I cataloged my new treasures. Captain Billy was only the beginning. Next were copies of Calgary Eye Opener, filled with jokes about drinking and fast women. Then several copies of Ballyhoo, filled with jokes about drinking and fast women.
Finally, the mother lode: From the 1920’s, copies of Art & Beauty Magazine for Art Lovers and Art Students. Carl was an Art Lover for sure, and so was I. In between ads for Crayola Crayons and one-page articles about Renoir were sepia-toned photos of young women draped in sheer gauze and holding glass spheres, up high, as if to catch the light.
In some pictures, the models were draped with silk and reclining on divans. In others, they cavorted in the forest like fairies. When not posing for great artists, the captions informed me, these young ladies appeared on stage in the Ziegfeld Follies, Earl Carroll’s Vanities, George White’s Scandals. I began to recognize recurring favorites: Jewel La Kota, the Philbin Sisters, Frances Norman, who seemed up for anything. Oh my.
Of course, my attitude toward this windfall was one of reverence. I nodded as I read the words of Edwin Bower Hesser in his Arts Monthly Pictorial of September 1926:
“Copies falling into the hands of utter laymen should not be misunderstood — we beg you to realize that in the realm of art the undraped body is an essential — that it is the basis of practically all design and all decoration. The young ladies who have posed for these pictures have done so in sincerity and as an aid to artistic development — they are entitled to respect. Even if you are not one of the inner circle devoting their whole lives to art, try to look at these pictures only in the light of understanding and appreciation of the beauty given to the world by its Creator. This magazine was founded on a basis of cleanliness and seeking after truth — its editors believe that in the perfect human body is the hope of a greater America for the future, a pure, clean womanhood and masculine minds of understanding and sympathy.”
There was so much to be reverent about. Thelma Hill from the Mack Sennett comedies, the cast of Shubert’s “A Night in Paris” and individual photos of Catherine Gallimore and Helen Gay, more lovelies from the Earl Carroll Vanities — Eileen Adair, Zena Trett, Nina Sorrell, Peggy Shannon, Rose Marie Haynes, Florence Ward, Greta Garde, Peggy Driscoll and Rose Wenzel. More showgirls with names like Eva Tanguay (Miss ‘I Don’t Care’ in a costume made primarily from long feathers), Helen Wherle, Billee Bostick, Lottie Marcy, Cloy St. Claire and Ripples Covert. Plus Miss Alaska, Helmar Liederman.
There were photos by Alfred Cheney Johnston, William Henningsen, Harold Dean Carsey, Ness, Smythe, J. W. Pondelicek (who discovered beauty among the sand dunes of Lake Michigan), Paul Broadly, John De Mirjian, and Edwin Bower Hesser. And, as you would expect, poetry from Swinburne, Milton and Tennyson elevated the tone.
I wondered if the brother-in-law ever thought about who might find his collection one day. Would it be his widow? A neighbor? A stranger? Would someone appreciate it as much as he had? He needn’t have worried.
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Photos: Art & Beauty, January 1928, photo by Lejaren A. Hiller; the model is Mary Phillips of the Ziegfeld Follies. Rose Marie Haynes of Earl Carroll’s Vanities appears in an uncredited photo in an undated issue of All Arts & Photos. Lastly, the cover of Edwin Bower Hesser’s Arts Monthly Pictorial, September 1926, model unnamed.