High School Honeys and Hot Holes

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With their photos of Britney peeling out with her baby behind the wheel and stories chronicling Nicole Richie’s weight fluctuations, Star and Us have allegedly taken tabloid reporting to a new level. But compared to some of their ancestors, today’s tabloids are like stodgy standard-bearers of journalistic integrity. Conceived in the 1930s, the first gossip rags began appearing at newsstands in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, filled with stories of gang warfare, traveling orgies, the shadowy queer underworld and girls gone wild in the cities’ ballrooms and brothels. For the first time, the public had a fix for an addiction it never knew it had.


    Most of the early tabloids quickly came and went, going bankrupt or falling victim to indecency laws. But one, Broadway Brevities, a weekly collection of filth, lies, suggestive cartoons and mean-spirited gossip, survived for years. Launched in 1916 as a relatively demure monthly gossip source for the New York theater world, it evolved into a beautifully garish tabloid for the general public. In its heyday, between the years of 1930 and 1935, it featured the most tasteless copy the law would allow — and in many cases, things it wouldn’t.
    Brevities‘ pages were littered with gossip about high-profile people about town. ("Helen Blair looked funny walking into Gimble’s the other day with that sugar daddy," claimed an item that chronicled the city’s ballroom scene. "But it paid, didn’t it Helen?"). Covers were invariably splashed with a tawdry article that had sex and sin at its epicenter. "MOBS HUSTLE GALS! White Slavers Trap Innocent Victims; Virgins Bring High Price In Vice Mart" blared one story about prostitution and the mob. "BIG BALLS POPULAR: Mammoth Dances Provide Entertainment; Whoopee Seekers Desert Intimate Hot Spots" warned another about the proliferation of public sex. Assertions like, "STUDENTS OPEN WIDE! Girls and Boys Mingle in Sin Dens" —

Four Brevities covers that illustrate the editors’ penchant for puns. (Click images to enlarge).

which appeared in Brevities on September 26, 1932 — were printed in bold on page one and basically made up out of thin air. Even the tagline that ran under the magazine’s logo, "America’s First National Tabloid Weekly," was a half-truth — Brevities was barely distributed outside New York.
    But the public didn’t care; they devoured Brevities‘ lurid stories, double entendres and graphic cartoons. Previously, certain art magazines had been seized by authorities under indecency laws, but Brevities‘ particular mix of sexual sensationalism and "news" was shocking and unprecedented. And although a few similar tabloids like the Broadway Tattler and the New York Tattler would pop up briefly during the early ’30s, Brevities was the indisputed king of the genre.
Within New York, its circulation was approximately 50,000 — a fraction of the audience for major media gossips like Walter Winchell. But what Brevities lacked in distribution, it compensated for with hysteria and amusement.

The term "tabloid" was trademarked in the 1880s as a word for little pills, or tabs, according to media historian Will Straw of McGill University. But by 1906 it was recognized as a term for half-sized newspapers. In its earliest years, the six-by-nine-inch Broadway Brevities assumed everyone reading it knew everyone else. Blind items asked questions like, “Who was the doll that had her sweetie followed by detectives for two whole weeks, and then gave him the bill when she found out he was K.O.?” Longer feature articles were, as Straw puts it, “devoted to the detailed destruction of reputations.” But because of its cryptic, insular tone, its appeal was lost on the general public.
    But in the 1930s, tabloids went trashy. (Brevities’ editor, Stephen Clow, had been imprisoned for blackmailing society figures in exchange for positive coverage, and had no compunction about going lowbrow.) The new publications weren’t just for small spheres of elites who all knew each other — they were for the uncouth, loud-mouthed masses. “You had society magazines in the nineteenth century with, ‘Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So were seen vacationing in Saratoga,'” says Straw. “But in the ’20s, what happens is you get people publishing who aren’t part of those social worlds. In many cases, they’re Jewish immigrants or somehow on the outside. And by the ’30s, it’s all outsiders.”
    Then, as now, gossip functioned as a form of social control. Brevities‘ stories became vague and abstract enough to be relatable to almost anyone. The April 4, 1932, cover story was titled "CHAIN SIN SOARS! Apartment Vice Nests in Big Cities Spew Evil into the Laps of Law-Abiding Citizens; Hundreds of Girls Sell Flesh in Dens Next Door to Homes of Decent People." It warned ominously that "bright, breezy girls in fashionable layouts" were moving prostitution out of the slums and into "well-appointed apartments where virtue is a memory and sex a matter of economics."

    "Where do the girls come from?" the writer asked. "
How are they employed? This is one way: A girl comes to the city in search of employment. She cannot obtain work; one of the chain scouts, always looking for business, picks her up. He treats her kindly and takes her to his apartment. Here she is introduced to the vice. The treatment she receives at the hands of many men is not to be described. After her brutal initiation into sin, the chain bosses are certain she will be too frightened, too crushed or too shamed to do anything else but accept the terms which are offered to her."
This was the tone of most Brevities stories: an anecdotal narrative that never ended well. Many read like Reefer Madness-esque government propaganda, dire warnings that a wayward lifestyle would lead to certain doom. Usually, that lifestyle involved casual sex and falling in with the wrong crowd. "Radical Writers Inhabit Love Camps" announced one headline. "Artist Colonies Seethe with Sex; Long-Haired Nuts Live Like Rabbits."








   Most Brevities stories fixated on the inevitable downward spiral of the modern ’30s woman: she’s drunk, she’s stoned, she’s selling her body or getting gruesomely hacked to death in a nightclub. One Brevities cartoon shows two upper-class women talking about getting laid by sailors and athletes as they stroll past a storefront sign advertising "English heels good for street walking." Another shows a young girl pulling up her skirt while asking her much older doctor, "Will you vaccinate me where it won’t show?" The last page of each issue of Brevities contained a column called "Women About Town" that told a new cautionary tale each week about an unnamed, allegedly real woman who’d had too much booze and sex and ended up an impoverished spinster seamstress or suffered some similarly horrific fate. "Men sought her like bees around honey," reads one allegory, "and, even if her intentions were the best, she soon succumbed to the lure of easy money . . . She soon hit the bottle, and whatever chance she had for further work was soon dissipated as her scandalous actions made the front pages regularly . . . When you see her walking up and down the main stem with her basket, remember that . . . she is a confirmed drunkard and, although she has been in many institutions, she is still as hopeless as the day she started."

From top: a story about an older man and a very young woman; a cartoon fretting about upper-class amoralism; a gossip column written under a pseudonym. (Click images to enlarge.)

    Such stories were written against the backdrop of a culture in which women had just won the right to vote. Some were getting desk jobs. Flappers were making premarital sex seem like a gratifying and intelligent choice. Anxiety over these "innocents" being consumed by their own liberation made for great paranoia-propelled copy, and Brevities was more than happy to gin up the crisis. 
‘ April 4, 1932, cover story, for instance, was an "exposé" headlined "ABORTIONS KILL OVER MILLION." There was no data to back up the claim, but plenty of macabre narrative:
    "While only a few women are killed outright by the fiendish operation, many are hurled into early graves as a result of the work done on them. Many, even when approaching certain death, will not admit what doctor harmed them. To do this would often implicate a lover. They shield their guilty secret with their death and the abortionist keeps on with his bloody work."
    Even better than hysterical women having affairs and being butchered by abortion doctors were women having sex with each other. Tabloids were obsessed with homosexuality almost from their inception. Today, it’s all about outing and speculation, but tabs like Brevities sought to uncover a seedy gay underground civilization. In the ’20s, Brevities ran a series of at least thirteen articles collectively titled "A Night in Fairyland" that claimed to document the shadowy world of gay nightlife. An anthropological approach — observing homosexuals in their native habitat — was typical. One article describes efforts by a prominent sexologist "to investigate the conditions among followers of the divine Sappho in the metropolis of the New World." After spending time searching for "any genuine resort in the city for girl friends," Brevities reports that he was unfortunately "unable to meet Lesbians at close range . . . Because of these circumstances, no competent study of New York’s slightly masculine women has yet been published. However, we are informed, one is now being prepared by an eminent authority in the field. He assures us that there really is a place. In fact many places."
    Brevities was shameless with its puns, particularly when it came to homosexuality. An article about gays emigrating to gay-friendly Europe is headlined "PANSIES BLOW U.S.: Hightail for Europe When Queer Antics Win Bronx Cheers from Normal Society. Yank Queens Go Native in Pretzelville and Flutter Purple Wings on Main Drags." Will Straw notes that it’s "the only reference to ‘blow’ in that context that I’ve seen that early in anything."
    Another issue of Brevities implied that employers of blue-collar workers were hiring teams of prostitutes to keep their guys satiated so they wouldn’t turn gay. Under the headline "MINERS’ HOT HOLES", a cartoon shows two construction workers coming perilously close to using a jackhammer as a dildo. "But the horny-handed sons of toil that roll up the shekels for the big boys must have their women. This is especially true of the coal miners, steel mill workers and other labor hogs who do the nation’s dirty work. Gals give this class of citizen his only kick. And gals this bozo must have if he is going to keep on whooping up production while his wages and chances of getting ahead go to the devil."








     This cynical tone is pervasive throughout every ’30s issue of Brevities. America’s economic collapse had hit New York in particularly grim fashion, where financiers were throwing themselves out the windows of their Wall Street offices. Central Park had become a shantytown of impoverished squatters, and theft and desperation-charged crime were rampant. Brevities reported Depression-related gossip in every issue, with shame-on-you blind items like "What Queens County Commissioner, with a salary of 6 ½ grand, snared a juicy receivership lately — while other lawyers are struggling to pay office rent and buy gasoline?" But even the stories that had nothing to do with economics reeked of pessimism and reflected the city’s general sense of hopelessness. A column called "In One Ear" in the January 11, 1932 issue illustrates the bleak outlook that had come to define many New Yorkers’ attitudes:

From top: the “Women About Town” column that warned of the ruin that awaited wayward females; a typical cheeky Brevities cartoon; a cover story on the horrors of miscegenation. (Click images to enlarge.)

    "She cheats on the wholesale scale. Life is just a bowl of dates to her. A chain system mama, she likes to link arms with them all. Her husband leaves town frequently and when he does she adds to her lists of conquests. But never did the husband indicate that he suspected.
    Just before her husband left on one of his trips she discovered she was in a delicate condition. Hubby gone, she went to a doctor and benefited by science. But the doctor told her (he was a boy friend, too) to lay off for a couple of months or things might go bad with her.
    For two months she lived a very quiet life. Nothing but movies and harmless running around with girls friends. When her husband returned he greeted her with more affection than he had shown in years. In fact he acted like the first days of their honeymoon. She asked him why he was so loving.
    ‘Well, I suppose I better tell you, honey,’ he said, ‘I was getting suspicious. I thought you were running around with other men when I was out of town, so I had a private detective trail you for the past two months. Now I know that you are faithful to me.’

From top: A cover story on southern-border prostitution; an inside page with columns on gang warfare and Wall Street’s woes; a rapid-fire rundown of questionable gossip. (Click images to enlarge.)

    The wife fell into her husband’s arms with the proper amount of protesting and tears and the husband soothed her and profusely apologized for his low suspicions. Now the wife cheats with abandon."

    If Brevities wasn’t exactly sermonizing, it was promoting some sort of oblique morality. The society that had just seen the Roaring Twenties disintegrate into ruin was interested in actions and their consequences. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice had particularly strong moral qualms against Broadway Brevities and its tabloid peers, and would eventually aid the magazine’s demise. A reform group formed in the late nineteenth century by supporters of the Young Men’s Christian Association, the SSV wouldn’t allow the tabloids to fall off the police department’s radar, and magazines like Brevities were frequently confiscated under indecency laws. For a while, the Brevities offices were located on West 22nd Street, right across the street from the offices of the SSV. The moralist organization was causing so much trouble for the editors of Brevities that they eventually started walking the mock-ups over to the SSV offices to get them pre-approved before printing them.
    But in January of 1932, New York City officially banned Broadway Brevities from sale at newsstands. The last issue that Straw has been able to find is from 1935, and he believes it folded shortly thereafter. Its ’20s editor, Stephen Clow, went on to start the similar tabloid Broadway Tattler, and later moved back to his native Canada to restart Broadway Brevities in Toronto. But at that point, Clow’s career and financial stability were on the decline, and the Canadian Brevities was mainly made up of content plagiarized from other, older publications. Clow died, broke and alone, in 1941, and Brevities, now completely unrecognizable from the 1930s New York version, ran its last issue sometime around 1948.
    Though we’ve benefited from two more feminist movements since then, today’s tabloids continue to devote ample space to feigned shock and outrage over the state of the American woman. Stories about student-teacher sex in which the teacher is female always carry a more hand-wringing tone of anxiety than when the teacher is a man — more “what has gone wrong with society?” than “throw the perv in jail.” The same magazines that relentlessly monitor starlets’ body weights also report Oprah’s crash-diet fainting spells and horror stories of lipo gone wrong. These magazines, from the National Enquirer-led second tabloid wave in the ’60s and ’70s to the current photo-driven glossies like Us Weekly and Star — not to mention the pile of gossip blogs that we refresh hourly throughout our workday — all took the original ’30s tabloid revolution as their blueprint. But tepid baby bumps and beach-shot cellulite are enough to make one yearn for yesteryear’s hot holes, big balls, Yank queens and fair gals who grab stiffs. 

All images courtesy of Dr. Will Straw.



©2006 Will Doig and Nerve.com