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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (2 page)

BOOK: 1920
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“Prohibition is better than no liquor at all,” said the humorist Will Rogers, consoling those who were victims of the inferior product so common in the twenties. Then, summing up the Eighteenth Amendment shortly after its repeal, Rogers asked a question: “Why don't they pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting anybody from learning anything?” he wanted to know. “If it works as well as prohibition did, in five years Americans would be the smartest race of people on Earth.”

It was in 1920 that corruption in public and private affairs began their ascent to levels that were unprecedented up to that time. There had long been misdeeds in government at all levels; but when the presidential election that autumn brought to the White House the so-called “Ohio
Gang,” all barriers of decency were crossed. The Gang started small, but eventually worked its way up to the greatest scandal that American politics had seen up to that time. As for the president, most people thought him innocent of wrongdoing, a bit thick-headed perhaps, but appalled at the behavior of his supposed friends. His regrets did not kill him, of course, but something about the timing of his death, so unexpected, made the citizenry wonder about the real cause of Warren Gamaliel Harding's premature passing. Was it, in fact, as stated? Why were so many possibilities being suggested?

It was in 1920, with the country prospering more than ever following the Great War, that many Americans, especially the most recent arrivals, began to look for the streets of gold that had been their dream in the old country. Most did not find them, not even a glimmer; in most cases, they found streets not even paved. And so America's ever-swelling number of immigrants lost all hope, however unrealistic those hopes might have been in the first place, and became cogs in the machinery that allowed the chosen few, the so-called robber barons, to make their own golden thoroughfares a reality, amassing fortunes beyond the power of the immigrants even to imagine. As far back as 1913, for example, John D. Rockefeller is said to have had almost a billion dollars in his toy chest, “or 2 percent of the U.S. gross national product; a comparable share today would give Rockefeller a net worth of $190 billion, or more than triple that of the richest man in the contemporary world, Bill Gates.”

Actually, it was even worse than that for the human cogs. Machinery is maintained and repaired when necessary; the men who operated it were simply pushed until they dropped and then replaced by others. None of them had health insurance; workman's compensation (it would not be called “worker's” compensation for many years yet) was harder to get than it is today. The robber barons disdained it, called it socialism, fought it in capitalism's courts—which, for all practical purposes, they owned.

A few Americans, though, achieved wealth either by working hard or by demonstrating extraordinary vision, or both. A few others had parents who brought their own money with them from abroad. And a very few others, not having inherited a vast sum and too impatient to spend a lifetime accumulating it, figured out ways to stockpile a fortune in a different
manner, and so easy did it seem that they wondered why others had not devised similar deceits. One man in particular would become legendary for his scam, a brilliant notion that started out legally but quickly went south, the result of which was that his name lived on, and continues to live, in ignominy. Long after he had been stripped of his millions and started running from the law, he died not only in poverty but in eternal night, thousands of miles from either his American or Italian home.

It was in 1920 that radical expressions in the arts revealed themselves to be what they really were: a rebellion in politics, culture, and the very premises upon which the
Main Street
type of society, a much more realistic version of the American dream, had been erected. In fact, Sinclair Lewis's volume was first published in 1920. But in painting, film, and music, as well as literature, there appeared goals and techniques that had never been seen or heard before; new genres were created and, refusing to settle for merely telling stories or rendering placid landscapes or other kinds of diversion, determined not to divert at all, but to demand. They would look beyond life's exteriors, into the soul not only of society but of the people who populated it; they would seek the most profound meanings, answer the most vexing of questions. They were aspirations that did not sound as naïve then as they do now.

There was a countervailing force at work, though, and in retrospect one sees it as the most important and enduring event of 1920: the invention of the American mass media. It began with radio, whose allies quickly became the newspapers with their tabloid value systems—and, in massing, the two media would form the most persuasive and pervasive of all American industries, as they went about making far too much of matters ever less consequential, the private lives of actors and singers, musicians and authors, comedians and athletes, heirs and heiresses, perpetrators and victims, millionaires and billionaires, and, later, disgraced public officials, pitchmen and anchormen, radio and TV talkers, sitcom stars, drama stars, game-show hosts, chefs, bloggers, Internet jesters, and even carefully chosen nonentities, some of whom would headline their own sublimely unrealistic “reality” shows.

Further, they would report murders, robberies, fires, automobile accidents—these and more aberrations as if they were common occurrences. The mass media would make so much of them all that eventually a tidal wave
of irrelevance would wash over the United States, and by late in the twentieth century the entire American lifestyle, the entire code of behavior and range of ambitions, would be unrecognizable from what it had been in the nineteenth. The country would have achieved the un-achievable—the dumbing-down of its audiences as they sank into vapidity with gleeful abandon, as delighted with their plight as if they were riding the newest attraction in an amusement park. American communications—radio and television, movies and newspapers, and eventually the so-called social media, provided by computers and their offspring—would transform the most powerful country on earth in its military and manufacturing might to a third-world nation in its tastes and values. So it is today; so it gives every sign of remaining.

Many of the names that were well known in 1920 are still well known at present. In other cases, the historical record no longer seems to have room for them, but the deeds for which they were responsible still resound in either impact or interest or both. Among the former are Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, J. Edgar Hoover, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, Charles Ponzi, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, and T. S. Eliot.

Included in the latter group are A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general whose raids on radicals resulted in more laws broken than terrorists captured, but who, much too late, might have solved the year's most vexing mystery; Luigi Galleani, a terrorist with powerful anti-American biases who was waved in through Ellis Island as if he were a visiting dignitary; Wayne Wheeler, the most powerful and deceptive teetotaler the country has ever known; Carter G. Woodson, whom most of the country did not know at all, a virtually anonymous African-American who accomplished more for his people than anyone until Martin Luther King, Jr.; Marcus Garvey, Woodson's antithesis, flashy in manner and attire, a highly educated African-American leader who undermined himself with self-defeating bravado and unrealistic goals; Margaret Sanger, who, without ever using the phrase “women's liberation,” did more to bring it about than any other woman in the land; Edith Wilson, a housewife of sorts who suddenly found herself in control of the most important house in the nation; Edwin P. Fisher, who wore three sets of clothes at once so that he didn't
have to carry a suitcase, and predicted the events of 1920's most onerous day with eerie precision; and thousands of anonymous but over-publicized “flappers,” the young, un-lady-like ladies with their short, bobbed hair; their short, often pleated skirts; and their whirling legs, dancing to that distant music once it finally came close enough to move them. We can still close our eyes and see these girls, all a-flutter, a zumba class for its time; those of us who are old enough can still bring the tunes to mind.

Ev'ry mornin', ev'ry evening', ain't we got fun?

Not much money, oh, but honey, ain't we got fun?

The rent's unpaid, dear, we haven't a bus,

But smiles were made dear for people like us.

Such a soundtrack, such a cast of characters, such an accumulation of deeds, admirable and otherwise. Such a time to be alive!

It was in 1920 that the Roaring Twenties first began to roar.

But it was not the year that people think it was. The roar might have been a sound of pain as much as power, frenzy as much as affirmation. For during the uniquely hectic twelve months in which the United States first solidified itself as a world colossus, it did so despite increasing internal turmoil. Big government versus anarchy, conventional values versus unholy new doctrines, labor versus management, “wets” versus “drys,” the lost generation versus the Jazz Age, wealth versus poverty, restraint versus hedonism—perhaps
was the continuing warfare so many had dreaded, struggles that took place between neighbors rather than nations.

It is an irony little short of breathtaking that the United States could grow and thrive and in fact enrich itself exponentially while engaged in such internecine struggles, some of them actually shedding blood. It was, at times, as if we were two different nations, opposites in temperament, yet forced by geography to exist side by side.

No less an irony is it that 1920 foretold the years to come so accurately. Foretold them, in fact, with such precision that there is an eeriness about it, a rattling of chains in the night. The story of the first full year of peace after the Treaty of Versailles seems on occasion as if it were as current as an e-mail alert, a beep that one hears within seconds of the message's arrival.


“Two Sheets of Flame”

on Thursday, September 16, 1920, a horse clomped slowly westward on Wall Street, tugging a cart behind it, struggling with a heavy load. It pulled over in front of a mighty granite building with a glass dome on top. The driver steadied the horse, looped the reins around the handle inside the cart, then stepped down from his perch and disappeared forever. Some people thought they saw him, but not well. A quick glimpse, a bad angle, a flash of sunlight obscuring the view. So later, when they told policemen what the driver looked like, they provided a variety of descriptions. There were, however, a few similarities, some features that kept being mentioned. The man “was very short and stocky.” Of this, all were certain.

As for the horse and cart, even fewer people seemed to pay attention, and none of them were law enforcers. In this relatively new age of labor unrest, which almost always meant violence, a disproportionate number of men in blue had been assigned from Lower Manhattan to Brooklyn, where
transit workers had begun to strike. Very few policemen were patrolling Wall Street at midday.

The animal tapped a hoof on the Wall Street cobblestones a few times, but otherwise did not move and did not seem impatient. Around it were buildings that represented the glories of America's past and its hopes for the present: the Trinity Church, symbol of the former, had occupied its current location since the end of the seventeenth century, before Benjamin Franklin was even born, and, after several renovations, continues to display its splendors to the present. Symbolizing the latter, and a few doors away from Trinity, the New York Stock Exchange was already planning to expand to another structure nearby with more offices and a larger trading floor. Next to the church was the United States Sub-Treasury and the Assay Office; and across the street, in all of its architectural grandeur, rose the J. P. Morgan Bank, with its granite walls, the peculiar dome atop them, and the horse and cart in front.

BOOK: 1920
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