The Middle of an Era


Sometimes the best place to start is in the middle. By the Spring of 1937, half of this fascinating era had already unfolded and the shadows of the second half were forming. To get a glimpse of this Depression era, let’s go back in time and fly over America’s biggest city, New York, and watch the events below.

The first part of New York City we pass is City Island, in the northeast Bronx, where we see a Great Depression contradiction. Bobbing in the blue waters at the Nevins’ shipyard dock is Clinton C. Crane’s newly launched yacht — Gleam. Even in the Great Depression the rich still have money for play. Meanwhile in a vacant lot just down the street, young boys play baseball with a ball autographed by major leaguers; the boys can’t afford a new ball.

But not all rich people use their expensive toys for idle pleasures. Further south at a Brooklyn dock, we find a recent arrival and an impending departure, both in the name of science. Vincent Astor’s yacht, the Nourmahal, has just returned from a 12,000-mile trip to the South Pacific, among Astor’s gifts for the Staten Island Zoo: a kinkajou, two porpoises, four macaws, and eight iguanas. Departing for Lima, Peru, tomorrow night on the Grace Lines steamship Santa Lucia is the Hayden Planetarium-Grace peruvian Total Solar Eclipse Expedition. Tonight they will enjoy a farewell party at The Explorers Club on West Seventy-second Street in Manhattan.

The common man of 1937 doesn’t have an invitation to that party, nor does he care to; he and his lady are better served in midtown Manhattan. For instance, just below us, at Thirty-third Street and Broadway, Gimbels offers fine quality men’s shirts for $1.39 and sheer-silk stockings at 59 cents a pair. A reasonably priced meal is available a few blocks crosstown on Seventh Avenue, where The Brass Rail restaurant offers “Food For Thought” — A combination sea food platter consisting of broiled lobster, crab meat, and jumbo shrimp complemented by potato salad, celery, olives, and Brass Rail dressing. “A Treat Supreme” for only $1.25.

For entertainment, swing music is at its height in 1937. One of the hottest bands is appearing at the new downtown Cotton Club over on Broadway and Forty-eighth Street: Duke Ellington’s band along with Ethel Waters and the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers.

Good movies abound. Two blocks south at the Globe Theatre is Frank Capra’s “Lost Horizon” starring Ronald Colman. It’s still early enough for the 50 cent matinee show. At Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall, Fredric March and Janet Gaynor appear in “A Star is Born”, plus, live on stage, “La Vie Parisienne” a “smart continental revue.”

Tonight on the radio: “Amos ‘n’ Andy” at seven o’clock, Kate Smith at eight, “Major Bowes’s Amateur Hour” at nine, and at ten, Bing Crosby will croon from the “Kraft Music Hall.” One of Bing’s regulars, comedian Bob Burns, always brings his comic musical instrument made from a whiskey siphon and a gas pipe. Burns calls it his “Bazooka.” In a few years the name will be transferred to a new and more deadly device.

At this point in the Depression, labor is flexing its union muscles with a potent weapon — the strike. Today at the offices of the Gasoline Station Attendents union, 1180 Broadway, union secretary Walter J. Burke announced a strike vote against the city’s gas dealers association. The 6,600 member union, affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, demands a minimum wage of $25 for a 5-day 40-hour week instead of the current 12-14 hour day at $15-18 a week.

Crosstown at the Commercial Artists Union headquarters, 155 East Thirty-fourth Street, the 100 employees of the Max Fleischer Studios, creators of the “Betty Boop” and “Popeye” cartoon series vote to strike against Mr. Fleischer for better working conditions higher wages, and vacations with pay.

Meanwhile, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia is ninety miles to the south, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, telling the International Ladies Garment Workers Union Convention that he is proud to support labor and welcomes the criticism of “cheap politicians” who attack his labor position. The ladies cheer and promise to endorse La Guardia for reelection.

Back in the borough of Queens, a no confidence vote for the mayor causes a police lieutenant’s transfer from his regular duties to more menial ones. The officer had publicly stated, “There will always be communism while this Mayor is in City Hall.”

Earlier this week, at City Hall, the former Unted States Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur married Jean Faircloth. They are now headed west and then across the Pacific to MacArthur’s new job as Field Marshall of the Philippine army.

This morning over 130 church leaders answered a plea from Rabbi Stephen S. Wise; they urged Christians to aid the United Palestine Appeal for settlement of German, Polish, and other Eoropean Jews to Palestine. “A responsibility rests upon Christianity to give assistance to the victims of intolerence,” read their statement.

At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a large crowd and a radio remote attend the launching of the destroyer USS Jarvis. Five years later Jarvis will vanish beneath the waves along with every soul aboard, somewhere north-northeast of an island called Guadalcanal.

Just south of the navy yard, at legendery Ebbets Field, Dodger fans howl at the umpires to call the game; rain is falling in the ninth inning, the bums have a five run lead over the Pirates, and the Flatbush faithful figure it’s time to call the game. The umpires don’t, but the Dodgers win a wet one anyway.

Thunder and lightning accompany the rain as we prepare to land.

Many of the things we have seen will be reported in the New York Times but all will be overshadowed by the end of our flight. For we are on board the German dirigible Hindenburg and the time is 7:19 p.m. on Thurday, May 6, 1937. As we glide through the threatening skies toward our landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, Herb Morrison a radio announcer for WLS and his sound man Charlie Nehlsen record the landing for playback later. “Here it comes, ladies and gentleman…a marvelous sight. It’s coming down out of the sky pointed directly toward us, towards the mooring mast…IT’S BURST INTO FLAMES…GET THIS CHARLIE, GET THIS CHARLIE…oh my, this is terrible…it…is falling on the mooring mast… Oh, the humanity and all the passengers!”

If we are lucky we will survive with broken bones and third degree burns, otherwise we will be among the 35 dead.

As this great ship of the sky plunges to earth, flames swallow the giant swastika emblazoned on the tail. If only it were the German ship of state vanishing in smoke and fire on this spring afternoon, then the unnecessary deaths caused by that swastika would have been limited to those already murdered during its corrupt rise. But the shadows of the future will remain unaltered, and the eventual death toll will be millions, upon millions, upon millions.