One Summer: America, 1927

One Summer: America, 1927

4.4 99
by Bill Bryson

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A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book
A GoodReads Reader's Choice

The summer of 1927 began with Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was closing in on the home run record. In Newark, New Jersey, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole for twelve days, and in Chicago, the gangster Al Capone was tightening his

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A Chicago Tribune Noteworthy Book
A GoodReads Reader's Choice

The summer of 1927 began with Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Babe Ruth was closing in on the home run record. In Newark, New Jersey, Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sat atop a flagpole for twelve days, and in Chicago, the gangster Al Capone was tightening his grip on bootlegging. The first true “talking picture,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, was filmed, forever changing the motion picture industry.
        All this and much, much more transpired in the year Americans attempted and accomplished outsized things—and when the twentieth century truly became the American century. One Summer transforms it all into narrative nonfiction of the highest order.

Editorial Reviews

By now, readers know that in the hands of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods; At Home), subjects come alive. In his latest lively gambit, this former Midwesterner rejuvenates the American summer of 1927, a season we obviously should have never lost. He populates this bustling age with notables including Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, and Herbert Hoover, but also with walk-ons eccentrics, authors, and actors. To put it simply, One Summer is one festive read, a signature Bryson reminder that, rightly told, history brims with interest.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition


Ten days before he became so famous that crowds would form around any building that contained him and waiters would fight over a corncob left on his dinner plate, no one had heard of Charles Lindbergh. The New York Times had mentioned him once, in the context of the coming Atlantic flights. It had misspelled his name.

The news that transfixed the nation as spring gave way to summer in 1927 was a gruesome murder in a modest family home on Long Island, coincidentally quite close to Roosevelt Field, where the Atlantic fliers were now gathering. The newspapers, much excited, called it the Sash Weight Murder Case.

The story was this: Late on the night of March 20, 1927, as Mr. and Mrs. Albert Snyder slept side by side in twin beds in their house on 222nd Street in a quiet, ­middle-­class neighborhood of Queens Village, Mrs. Snyder heard noises in the upstairs hallway. Going to investigate, she found a large ­man—­a “giant,” she told ­police—­just outside her bedroom door. He was speaking in a foreign accent to another man, whom she could not see. Before Mrs. Snyder could react, the giant seized her and beat her so roughly that she was left unconscious for six hours. Then he and his confederate went to Mr. Snyder’s bed, strangled the poor man with picture wire, and stove in his head with a sash weight. It was the sash weight that fired the public’s imagination and gave the case its name. The two villains then turned out drawers all over the house and fled with Mrs. Snyder’s jewels, but they left a clue to their identity in the form of an ­Italian-­language newspaper on a table downstairs.

The New York Times the next day was fascinated but confused. In a big page-one headline it reported:

Art Editor Is Slain in Bed;

  Wife Tied, Home Searched;

  Motive Mystifies Police

The story noted that a Dr. Vincent Juster from St. Mary Immaculate Hospital had examined Mrs. Snyder and ­couldn’t find any bump on her that would explain her six hours of unconsciousness. Indeed, he ­couldn’t find any injuries on her at all. Perhaps, he suggested tentatively, it was the trauma of the event rather than actual injury that accounted for her prolonged collapse.

Police detectives by this time, however, were more suspicious than confused. For one thing, the Snyder house showed no sign of forced entry, and in any case it was an oddly modest target for murderous jewel thieves. The detectives found it curious, too, that Albert Snyder had slept through a violent scuffle just outside his door. The Snyders’ ­nine-­year-­old daughter, Lorraine, in a room across the hall, had also heard nothing. It also seemed strange that burglars would break into a house and evidently pause to read an anarchist newspaper before placing it neatly on a table and proceeding upstairs. Oddest of all, Mrs. Snyder’s ­bed—­the one from which she had arisen to investigate the noise in the ­hallway—­was tidily made, as if it had not been slept in. She was unable to account for this, citing her concussion. As the detectives puzzled over these anomalies, one of them idly lifted a corner of mattress on Mrs. Snyder’s bed and there revealed the jewels that she had reported stolen.

All eyes turned to Ruth. She met the detectives’ gazes uncertainly, then broke down and confessed the ­crime—­but blamed it all on a brute named Judd Gray, her secret lover. Ruth Snyder was placed under arrest, a search was begun for Judd Gray, and the ­newspaper-­reading public of America was about to become uncommonly excited.

The 1920s was a great time for reading ­altogether—­very possibly the peak decade for reading in American life. Soon it would be overtaken by the passive distractions of radio, but for the moment reading remained most people’s principal method for filling idle time. Each year, American publishers produced 110 million books, more than 10,000 separate titles, double the number of ten years before. For those who felt daunted by such a welter of literary possibility, a helpful new phenomenon, the book club, had just made its debut. The ­Book-­of-­the-­Month Club was founded in 1926 and was followed the next year by the Literary Guild. Both were immediately successful. Authors were venerated in a way that seems scarcely possible now. When Sinclair Lewis returned home to Minnesota to work on his novel Elmer Gantry (published in the spring of 1927), people came from miles around just to look at him.

Magazines boomed, too. Advertising revenues leaped 500 percent in the decade, and many publications of lasting importance made their debut: Reader’s Digest in 1922, Time in 1923, the American Mercury and Smart Set in 1924, The New Yorker in 1925. Time was perhaps the most immediately influential. Founded by two former Yale classmates, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden, it was very popular but wildly inaccurate. It described Charles Nungesser, for instance, as having “lost an arm, a leg, a chin” during the war, which was not merely incorrect in all particulars but visibly so since Nungesser could be seen every day in newspaper photographs with a full set of limbs and an incontestably bechinned face. Time was noted for its repetitious devotion to certain ­words—­swart, nimble, ­gimlet-­eyed—­and to squashed neologisms like cinemaddict and cinemactress. It also had a fondness for odd, distorted phrases, so that “in the nick of time” became, without embarrassment, “in ­time’s nick.” Above all, it had a curious Germanic affection for inverting normal word order and packing as many nouns, adjectives, and adverbs as possible into a sentence before bringing in a ­verb—­or as Wolcott Gibbs put it in a famous New Yorker profile of Luce, “Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind.” Despite their ­up-­to-­the-­minute swagger, Luce and Hadden were deeply conservative. They would not, for instance, employ women for any job above the level of secretary or office assistant.

Above all, the 1920s was a golden age for newspapers. Newspaper sales in the decade rose by about a fifth, to 36 million copies a ­day—­or 1.4 newspapers for every household. New York City alone had twelve daily papers, and almost all other cities worthy of the name had at least two or three. More than this, in many cities readers could get their news from a new, revolutionary type of publication that completely changed people’s expectations of what daily news should ­be—­the tabloid. Tabloids focused on crime, sports, and celebrity gossip, and in so doing gave all three an importance considerably beyond any they had enjoyed before. A study in 1927 showed that tabloids devoted between a quarter and a third of their space to crime reports, up to ten times more than the serious papers did. It was because of their influence that the quiet but messy murder of a man like Albert Snyder could become national news.

The tabloid, both as a format and as a way of distilling news down to its salacious essence, had been around for a quarter of a century in ­En­gland, but no one had thought to try it in the United States until two young members of the Chicago Tribune publishing family, Robert R. McCormick and his cousin Joseph Patterson, saw London’s Daily Mirror while serving in ­En­gland during World War I and decided to offer something similar at home when peace came. The result was the Illustrated Daily News, launched in New York in June 1919, price 2 cents. The concept was not an immediate ­hit—­circulation at one point was just eleven ­thousand—­but gradually the Daily News built a devoted following and by the ­mid-­1920s it was far and away the ­best-­selling newspaper in the country, with a circulation of one million, more than double that of the New York Times.

Such success inevitably inspired imitators. First came the New York Daily Mirror from William Randolph Hearst in June 1924, followed three months later by the wondrously dreadful Evening Graphic. The Graphic was the creation of an eccentric, ­bushy-­haired businessman named Bernarr Macfadden, who had started life rather more prosaically some fifty years earlier as a Missouri farmboy named Bernard MacFadden. Macfadden, as he now styled himself, was a man of strong and exotic beliefs. He ­didn’t like doctors, lawyers, or clothing. He was powerfully devoted to bodybuilding, vegetarianism, the rights of commuters to a decent railroad service, and getting naked. He and his wife frequently bemused their neighbors in Englewood, New ­Jersey—­among them Dwight Morrow, a figure of some centrality to this story, as will become ­apparent—­by exercising naked on the lawn. Macfadden’s commitment to healthfulness was so total that when one of his daughters died of a heart condition he remarked: “It’s better she’s gone. She’d only have disgraced me.” Well into his eighties he could be seen walking around Manhattan carrying a ­forty-­pound bag of sand on his back as a way of keeping fit. He lived to be ­eighty-­seven.

As a businessman, he seems to have dedicated his life to the proposition that where selling to the public is concerned no idea is too stupid. He built three separate fortunes. The first was as the inventor of a cult science he called Physcultopathy, which featured strict adherence to his principles of vegetarianism and strength through bodybuilding, with forays into nakedness for those who dared. The movement produced a chain of successful health farms and related publications. In 1919, as an outgrowth of the latter, Macfadden came up with an even more inspired invention: the confession magazine. True Story, the flagship of this side of his operations, soon had monthly sales of 2.2 million. All the stories in True Story were candid and juicy, with “a yeasty undercurrent of sexual excitation,” in the words of one satisfied observer. It was Macfadden’s proud boast that not a word in True Story was fabricated. This claim caused Macfadden a certain amount of financial discomfort when a piece in 1927 called “The Revealing Kiss,” set in Scranton, Pennsylvania, turned out, by unfortunate chance, to contain the names of eight respectable citizens of that fair city. They sued, and Macfadden was forced to admit that True Stories’ stories were not in fact true at all and never had been.

When tabloids became the rage, Macfadden launched the Evening Graphic. Its most distinguishing feature was that it had almost no attachment to truth or even, often, a recognizable reality. It conducted imaginary interviews with people it had not met and ran stories by figures who could not possibly have written them. When Rudolph Valentino died in 1926, it produced a series of articles by him from beyond the grave. The Graphic became famous for a form of illustration of its own invention called the composograph, in which the faces of newsworthy figures were superimposed on the bodies of models who had been posed on sets to create arresting tableaux. The most celebrated of these visual creations came during annulment proceedings, earlier in 1927, between Edward W. “Daddy” Browning and his young and dazzlingly erratic bride, affectionately known to all as Peaches, when the Graphic ran a photo showing (without any real attempt at plausibility) Peaches standing naked in the witness box. The Graphic sold an extra 250,000 copies that day. The New Yorker called the Graphic a “grotesque fungus,” but it was a phenomenally successful fungus. By 1927, its circulation was nearing six hundred thousand.

For conventional newspapers, these were serious and worrying numbers. Most responded by becoming conspicuously more like tabloids themselves, in spirit if not presentation. Even the New York Times, though still devotedly solemn and gray, found room for plenty of juicy stories throughout the decade and covered them with prose that was often nearly as feverish. So now when a murder like that of Albert Snyder came along, the result across all newspapers was something like a frenzy.

It hardly mattered that the perpetrators were spectacularly ­inept—­so much so that the writer Damon Runyon dubbed it the Dumbbell Murder ­Case—­or that they were not particularly attractive or imaginative. It was enough that the case involved lust, infidelity, a heartless woman, and a sash weight. These were the things that sold newspapers. The ­Snyder-­Gray case received more column inches of coverage than any other crime of the era, and was not exceeded for column inches until the trial of Bruno Hauptmann for the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby in 1935. In terms of its effect on popular culture, even the Lindbergh kidnapping ­couldn’t touch it.

Trials in 1920s America were often amazingly speedy. Judd Gray and Ruth Snyder were arraigned, indicted by a grand jury, and in the dock barely a month after their arrest. A carnival atmosphere descended on the Queens County Courthouse, a building of classical grandeur in Long Island City. A hundred and thirty newspapers from across the nation and as far afield as Norway sent reporters. Western Union installed the biggest switchboard it had ever ­built—­bigger than any used for a presidential convention or World Series. Outside the courthouse, lunch wagons set up along the curb and souvenir sellers sold stickpins in the shape of sash weights for ten cents each. Throngs of people turned up daily hoping to get seats inside. Those who failed seemed content to stand outside and stare at the building knowing that important matters that they could not see or hear were being decided within. People of wealth and fashion turned up, too, among them the Marquess of Queensberry and the unidentified wife of a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Those fortunate enough to get seats inside were allowed to come forward at the conclusion of proceedings each day and inspect the venerated exhibits in the ­case—­the sash weight, picture wire, and bottle of chloroform that featured in the evil deed. The News and Mirror ran as many as eight articles a day on the trial. If any especially riveting disclosures emerged during the ­day—­that, for instance, Ruth Snyder on the night of the murder had received Judd Gray in a ­blood-­red ­kimono—­special editions were rushed into print, as if war had been declared. For those too eager or overcome to focus on the words, the Mirror provided 160 photographs, diagrams, and other illustrations during the three weeks of the trial, the Daily News nearer 200. For a short while, one of ­Gray’s lawyers was one Edward Reilly, who would later gain notoriety by defending Bruno Richard Hauptmann in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping trial, but Reilly, who was a hopeless drunk, was fired or resigned at an early stage.

Each day for three weeks, jurors, reporters, and audience listened in rapt silence as the tragic arc of Albert Snyder’s mortal fall was outlined. The story had begun ten years earlier when Snyder, the lonely, balding art editor of Motor Boating magazine, had developed an infatuation with an office secretary of high spirits and light intellect named Ruth Brown. She was thirteen years his junior and not notably attracted to him, but when, after their third or fourth date, he offered her a ­gumball-­sized engagement ring her modest defenses crumbled. “I just ­couldn’t give up that ring,” she explained helplessly to a friend.

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One Summer: America, 1927 4.4 out of 5 based on 1 ratings. 99 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The way he writes...come over here and look at this. And look, just behind it, and over your shoulder...Look at this! It's like flying through history, occasionally settling for a study, then taking off again. Highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent book -- very well written -- hits the sweet spot of history writing lying between highly scholarly works focusing on the minutia and high level works approaching bordering on the superficial.  A very enjoyable read and highly recommended.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book! Bryson does an amazing job of making a tiny span of time come alive with such real people, places, and events that it will fill you up! He provides a wealth of backstory that is then masterfully woven into the theme of "just one summer", making a tapestry that is colorful, engrossing, and a memorable read. I believe this book would appeal to readers of all ages...the people who were living at that time, those of us who enjoy reading about an earlier time in our country, and anyone, of any age, who just wants an enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Who would think so much history was jam packed in less than a year? Author Bryson makes the spring and summer of 1927 come alive with the history making events and bigger than life celebrities of that era. He provides enough background so that even a newcomer to history understands the issues and people involved, and he lets us know what became of these headline makers long after 1927 was gone. He tells us about historic figures who are not forgotten (Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Sacco & Venzetti) and those who are (The Pig Lady). A mirror into a long gone age, recommended reading for all ages.
Lace1cat More than 1 year ago
In spite of Brinkley's damning review, I found this book delightful! Kudos to Bill Bryson. I treasure every word Bryson has ever written. He could describe the process of paint drying and I would be totally cracked up! Good on you, Bryson!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson has to be the best writer alive! Every book he's written capitvates, entertains and educates. His wisdom and humor are so well blended, I am thankful he became a writer! This is one fantastic read!
wilVD More than 1 year ago
I have always enjoyed Bill Bryson's books. This was particularly interesting because it covered a time in history that I had little knowleged about. So much lead up to the Great Depression and to WWII.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Once again, Bill Bryson writes a truly excellent book. I am presently on my second 'go round' in order to help get the facts and stories imbedded into my memory bank. The History of the book is rich, extremely well written, and leaves me with an understanding of much, much more than one important summer from long ago. I feel that I have taken a trek through the first four decades of the 20th Century and it has been a personal and enriching experience. Simply put; "Very well done!"
ringoDR More than 1 year ago
I'm 73, so I wasn't born in 1927, but I'd had a sense of some the things that had gone on that year from my parents, but certainly not all, and not nearly in the depth presented by Bryson. The history of early aviation and of the era when baseball was truly the national pastime were the portions that made the biggest impression on me. I guess I'd also have to add to that the devastation caused by the great Mississippi flood and the other severe weather events of that summer. I spent most of my life in the Midwest and had never heard of that awful time. I don't consider myself a history buff, and part of my motivation for reading this book was having read a number of other Bryson books. Was it my favorite? Well, not really, as I like something with a story line, but that's just personal taste. I like page-turners, and this one only gently brought me back to the book, rather than an eagerness to see what happens on the next page of a good mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
For a nonfiction book, this was hard to put down. The insight into the characters making the headlines in 1927 were very interesting.
Jesse_Colorado More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have read in years! Bryson knows how to bring history to life and put you there. I can't wait for "1928" to come out.
Spence45 More than 1 year ago
Bryson's title is a little deceptive. He claims to write about a single year, and he does include big moments from 1927, but it is simply an excuse to paint an entire historical era. Half of every chapter is background to a big "moment" like Ruth's homerun barrage, the great Mississippi flood, or Lindbergh's flight to Paris. Bryson's style is rather breathless, and he seems to take real pleasure in cynical attacks on Presidents Coolidge, Harding and Hoover (though they are admittedly easy targets.) He is not so much an historian as an entertainer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Bill Bryson does it again, skillfully interwining people and events of 1927. Filled with trivia, fascinating descriptions and sharp analysis, this book will appeal to everyone from sports fans to political junkies.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding look back at 1927. Bryson's attention to detail is remarkable.
RAM13 More than 1 year ago
Husband and I are fans of Bill Bryson books. This definitely shows lots of dark sides of American history. Learned a lot in an entertaining way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another winner by my favorite author! Well done Bill!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
the book was a great read
Anonymous 5 months ago
Chowbell More than 1 year ago
 I could not put this book down. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What I enjoyed most was that I learned about so many things, both good and bad, that happened in 1927 that I never knew about. It certainly help give me a better perspective on what is going on in today's world. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting and fun facts.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
BookFestival More than 1 year ago
I loved 'One Summer'! It's very informative and entertaining; it would make a great 88th birthday gift.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
royandronnie More than 1 year ago
Another by Bill Bryson in top form. You'll find yourself looking up again and again going "I never knew that!" as you read the remarkable story of a remarkable summer in American, and world, history. Didn't think you cared about the 20s? Neither did I. Bill will carry you effortlessly along from one familiar name and event to the other, leaving you with one thought: how could so many pivotal events happen in so little time? Really good. You need this one.