Bill Bryson's books travel, memoir, historical and scientific compendiums share three characteristics: They are witty; they show a connoisseur's pleasure in the audacious and the crackpot; and they tend to proceed through networks of free association and coincidence. They are also marked by a mood of joy and acerbity I find especially engaging. All of these are again on display in One Summer: America, 1927, a title, you will notice, that dispenses with the marketer's nostrum "That Changed the World," though the summer in question did in fact change it as did, of course, every summer before and to come. Still, this particular summer is exceptionally good to write about, not only for its celebrated events but also because it comes in the last half of the 1920s, a decade that is, as Bryson declares, "in many ways the most strange and wondrous...in American history."
In the first place, that summer, like the decade as a whole, was stamped by the corrosive effects of Prohibition: "At one stroke it shut down the fifth-largest industry in America. It took some $2 billion a year out of the hands of legitimate interests and put it in the hands of murderous thugs. It made criminals of honest people and actually led to an increase in drinking in the country." As to specific events, the summer of 1927 witnessed what can be justly described as mass hysteria over Charles Lindbergh's solo flight from Long Island to Paris and to a lesser, though still fanatical extent, the Dempsey-Tunney fight, Babe Ruth's sixtieth home run, the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, and, very weirdly, the so- called Sash Weight Murder Case, the bludgeoning and garroting to death of a man called Albert Snyder by his wife, Ruth, and her lover, Judd Gray. Only unstoppable press and radio momentum can explain the violent interest taken in this murder, for, as Bryson observes, there were "[p]lenty of other, better murders...available to excite attention that year."
It was also the summer (and spring) of the Great Mississippi Flood, a catastrophic deluge that submerged over 16.5 million acres across ten states. Though it had a devastating impact on hundreds of thousands of people and far-reaching historical consequences for the entire country, it just didn't provide the right sort of spectacle for mass consumption, not least because those most affected were poor and mostly black. "It is a shocking fact," writes Bryson, "that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray."
Still, the limelight rarely strayed from one actor in this tragedy, and that was Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, a man whose talent for organization was surpassed only by his gift for self- promotion. His administration of flood relief, combined with his relentless touting of his achievements, real and asserted, made him as he admitted himself a shoo-in for the presidency. Happily, there would be an opening, for that was also the summer Calvin Coolidge, attended by some baffling hugger-mugger, released the gnomic statement "I do not choose to run." Bryson makes a most entertaining meal of both Hoover ("dazzlingly short on endearing qualities") and Coolidge, who could not stand the former, calling him Wonder Boy. Where Hoover never stopped, Coolidge, according to Bryson, worked no more than four and a half hours a day and was given to naps. ("When not napping, he often sat with his feet in an open desk drawer...and counted cars passing on Pennsylvania Avenue.") Unlike Hoover, Silent Cal did have a sense of humor, even if it was, in Bryson's words, "that of a slightly backward schoolboy one of his favorite japes was to ring all the White House servant bells at once, then hide behind the drapes to savor the confusion that followed."
Bryson has enriched these pages with many other mischievous sketches of great and not-so-great historical figures and ornamented them with oddball facts. He begins one chapter with an especially pleasing one: "Of all the figures who rose to prominence in the 1920s in America, none had a more pugnacious manner, finer head of hair, or more memorable name than Kenesaw Mountain Landis." He goes on to note that John Reed described the adamantine judge "as having 'the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead" and explains that Landis got his curious name as a commemorative gesture on the part of his father, who had lost a leg in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain during the Civil War.
Many of the events of that spring and summer represented only the seeds of things to come: A crude version of television was first demonstrated to the press, the first image broadcast being none other than Herbert Hoover's self-satisfied mug. Later, Philo T. Farnsworth, "the greatest inventor of whom most people have never heard," filed his first patent for the television technology that eventually triumphed, though credit (and profit) was seized by an overweening RCA. This melancholy story strays into the years following, but Bryson delivers it briskly in all its perfidy. That summer, too, set the clock ticking for Al Capone's exit from public service when the Supreme Court ruled that those who profited through illegal activities could be prosecuted for tax evasion. Another, greater downfall was set into motion when the Federal Reserve reduced the discount rate from 4.0 to 3.5 percent, thus further inflating the stock market bubble whose collapse ushered in the Great Depression.
Other events, were, all unknown, swan songs: the silent movie Wings, a masterpiece of innovative cinematography was one such. It appeared in August, but two months later, the silent era was dealt its death blow with the release of The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length talking picture. The newspapers, which attracted more readers than ever before that year, began their long, winding exit from relevance, the number of readers declining from then on.
Further, and perhaps more important for the character of the nation, the number and diversity of newspapers themselves began to diminish. This is a point made by Frederick Lewis Allen in his brilliant Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s (referred to by Bryson, though not to this end): Big cities began to lose competing papers, and local ones were increasingly gathered into centrally owned chains. Though it is not Bryson's stated intention to show it, his book demonstrates throughout that this is the decade during which mass media and public relations consultants gained a firm hold over public awareness, determining what was important, even what might be said to exist.
This colorful bouquet of popular history is lighthearted for the most part and serves as a seductive introduction to a pivotal decade. Most helpfully, Bryson has backed up each fast-paced chapter with snappy little bibliographic essays to lure the reader into greater and even more astonishing depth.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
Read an Excerpt
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.