Published on Sunday, August 17, 2014
In the summer of 1927, America was on a binge of excitement. No tragedy, no horror, no scandal, no excess, no achievement, no lunacy was overlooked as a source of entertainment. And that summer provided no end to these activities.
Certainly, America had arrived as the world center for finance, technology, and popular culture. Following World War I, the nation had begun to move quickly from an agrarian one to an urban one. Prohibition was the law, but the number of saloons grew in New York and Chicago and other urban centers and speak-easies flourished. Bootlegging criminals like Al Capone got rich and powerful, while the government struggled to cope with the revenue loss of its 5th largest industry.
Aviation was the source of tremendous experimentation and tomfoolery. Countless aviators and tinkerers died or took off to challenge the skies and were never heard from or of again. But in 1927 Charles Lindbergh succeeded in flying his unlikely looking plane across the Atlantic, and instantly became an international hero who was thereafter dangerously mobbed, hounded, and harassed by his admirers. It later turned out that he was a big admirer of Germany’s Nazis.
Multiple newspapers flourished in every major city and readers gobbled up reports of crime and punishment with relish - especially the punishment part. The reading public savored bombings by anarchists, murderous love triangles, death sentence electrocutions and scandals of every stripe.
Then there were sports. Babe Ruth was the New York Yankees’ home run hero and in ’27 the Yanks clinched the World Series. Even bigger was the 1927 boxing bout between the enormously popular, Heavyweight Champion Jack Dempsey and contender Gene Tunney, which attracted a paid attendance of 120,000. Dempsey never fought again.
A burning skyscraper would result in a “fire party” of onlookers booked into a nearby hotel for ring side seats. People sat on flag poles just because. Women’s hemlines went up. Dancing was all the rage. Victims of the disastrous and unprecedented Mississippi River flood received absolutely no federal aid, and Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who was in charge of the relief effort, was darned proud of it.
“Show Boat” opened on Broadway, representing the first production in musical theater where the songs advanced the story rather than bring it to a standstill. The first talking motion picture was released. Work began on a controversial, monumental sculpture of four American presidents carved into the side of a mountain in South Dakota. And Henry Ford decided to stop making Model Ts and came up with a hare-brained scheme to grow rubber in a South American rain forest.
This spectacularly fascinating time capsule is crafted with the diligent research, irony, humor, and polished prose that typifies Bill Bryson’s work. Here, he could make even the most reluctant student of history savor this gem of a particular place in time.
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