A year ago, I survived one of those landmark birthdays which was divisible by practically everything. I was prepared to tiptoe past this year's nondescript milestone, the principal interest of which is that it is divisible only by itself and one. I am at a prime number, so-called, and pleased to think I am in the prime of anything.
But the day has taken on fresh meaning because a friend, J. H. Scott of Studio City, has sent me a copy of a newspaper published the day I was born. Not a reproduction but the real thing, brown and fragile as dry leaves.
I have seen ads for an outfit that provides the service, and have wondered from what teeming and cluttered attic the papers must come. Now I know. The paper still carries the mailing label for the Ohio State University Library, and some ingenious entrepreneurs must have bought up the originals when the library went to microfilm.
The double excitement for me is that it is not just any paper published that day, but the legendary New York World, founded in 1868 by Joseph Pulitzer, he of the prizes.
The drama critic on my day was Alexander Woollcott, reviewing a Theatre Guild production of a sentimental Russian import by Nicholas Evreinoff and called "The Chief Thing," with a cast that included such enduring names as Estelle Winwood, Edward G. Robinson, Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg.
A "prankful romp," Woollcott said; but he added that it was "a play so elfin as to prompt the cynical to voice the suspicion that Mr. (James M.) Barrie must have visited Russia once long ago." The plot involved what the playwright called Parakletes, or, roughly, angels, who visit a village, solving problems and bestowing happiness.
"All through the first act," Woollcott said, outrageously, "I thought a Paraklete was something which picturesque sailors are always bringing up from Brazil."
Quinn Martin was the paper's film critic, reviewing an Adolf Zukor-Jesse Lasky production of Zane Grey's "Desert Gold," directed by George B. Seitz and starring Neil Hamilton and William Powell among others. "Worth seeing as a scenic," Martin concluded.
There was plenty to keep any entertainment-seeker on the move: "Abie's Irish Rose" was in its fourth year at the Republic. Al Jolson headed the "Artists and Models" revue at the Winter Garden; the Marx Brothers were doing "The Cocoanuts" at the Lyric and George Jessel was doing "Jazz Singer" live at the Cort.
And there was Ina Claire in "The Last of Mrs. Cheney," and Dennis King in Russell Janney's "The Vagabond King," with music by Rudolph Friml. Fred Chaliapin was in "Faust" at the Met. The largest movie ad was for King Vidor's "La Boheme," with Lillian Gish, John Gilbert and Renee Adoree.
On the op-ed page where the reviews appeared there were two regular columns whose authors carved themselves places in journalistic history: "The Conning Tower" by F.P.A. (Franklin P. Adams) and "It Seems to Me" by Heywood Broun.
Adams earned national fame as one of the witty and encyclopedically informed minds on the popular radio show "Information Please." His column was built of contributions and his own wry commentaries. I'm not sure where an aspiring author today would get the same lift as his elders did from being printed by F.P.A. On a Tuesday in March, 1926, "The Conning Tower" was not quite memorable, but it was quietly charming.
In his column, Broun was agreeing with the Freethinkers' Society, which opposed a plan for what we would now call released-time religious education for schoolchildren. Broun's own free-swinging approach was that the educators have done so poorly communicating the glories of Washington and Lincoln that they were less than ideal candidates to convey the divinity of Christ. The Freethinkers were arguing that the plan would encourage religion. Broun thought it would likely do the opposite.
There were visual pleasures in The World. Bud Fisher's "Mutt and Jeff" was a strip in the sports pages, where the St. Louis Browns had walloped the Brooklyn Robins in the last game of spring training. The box scores all over the page are rich with echoing names, from Frisch (Frank) to Maranville (Rabbit).
The elegant editorial cartoonist Rollin Kirby was this day welcoming spring, uncontroversially. H. T. Webster, whose one-panel cartoons survived in later years in the New York Herald Tribune, chronicled one of life's darkest moments, when the office boy wears a loud necktie and takes a terrible razzing from his colleagues, including the steno.
The wider world was there in the paper, of course, rich with import and trivia alike. France warned of Italy's warlike buildup. Mussolini sent congratulations to Columbia for starting a department of Italian studies, and at home the dictator was patron of an art show celebrating "pure" Fascist architecture. The German envoy was trying to maneuver his pre-Hitler country into the League of Nations.
Despite a protest by the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the state legislature voted down a bill to fund the enforcing of the 18th or Prohibition Amendment.
Four years after it happened, the murder of director William Desmond Taylor was still an unsolved and open case, and Mabel Normand was returning to Los Angeles to answer new questions, which she said she was eager to do.
Three chaps from Yale were arrested for throwing chocolate-covered almonds at the contestants in a beauty pageant in New Haven. And the mayor of New York, the Hon. James Walker, was cruising off Sarasota on John Ringling's yacht when it ran hard aground. His honor was removed to a smaller launch, which died, and he was finally set ashore from a rowboat, delighted by the excitement.
New York Telephone was looking for night operators at $18.50 a week, with the promise of swift advancement. The classifieds for men said things like "Must be strong and willing to hustle."
The Stutz Used Car Department had values from $75 up. A Stutz Bearcat was offered, no price stated but said to be a bargain. The Caronia was due from Liverpool, the Siboney from Havana, and there was a dog talk on WJZ at 7 p.m.
On the whole, I'm as glad I was just starting out that day, not in midlife. But how engrossing to have so detailed a peek at the world you'd entered.