At the time of her death the notoriously reticent editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, declared that “Lois Long invented fashion criticism,” adding that she “was the first American fashion critic to approach fashion as an art and to criticize women’s clothes with independence, intelligence, humor and literary style.” Hired by the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross, in its first year, 1925, Long wrote for it for 45 years. While inventing fashion criticism, she also chronicled her escapades in the flamboyant New York of the ’20s, contributed opinion pieces, reportage, and light fiction, and, in her later years, offered wry reminiscences.
Lois Bancroft Long was born December 15, 1901, in Stamford, Connecticut, the first of the three children of Rev. Dr. William J. Long and Frances Bancroft Long. Her father, the pastor of First Congregational Church of Stamford, received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1892—having completed the course of study at Bridgewater State Normal School in Massachusetts and three years as a high school principal—and subsequently studied theology at Andover Theological Seminary. He went on to study at the Universities of Berlin, Paris, and Heidelberg, attaining the MA and PhD degrees from Heidelberg in 1897. He also studied at the Vatican Library in Rome
Along with his pastoral duties, Dr. Long wrote on history, literature, and nature, focusing the latter works on younger readers. In 1903, the naturalist John Burroughs attacked Long and other nature writers who tended to anthropomorphize wild animals, identifying Long as “the worst of these nature-writing offenders.” Taking up Burrough’s theme, President Theodore Roosevelt, decried the influence on children of those he called “nature fakers,” and the New York Times subsequently reported that Long’s The Ways of Wood Folk and The Wood Folk at Home had been dropped by the Philadelphia public schools. Long’s History of English Literature, published the following year, was acclaimed widely and remained a best seller in its field for years.
After graduating from Stamford High School, Lois Long entered Vassar in 1918. She concentrated in English and French, graduating in 1922 with an English major. At college, she participated occasionally in campus theatricals, contributed a comprehensive review of “Vassar Dramatics” to the Poughkeepsie Courier in June of her final year, and was one of the four “Literary and Joke” editors of 1922’s Vassarian. From Vassar, Long went directly to New York, working first as a copywriter at Vogue, and then, succeeding Margaret Case Harriman, as a staff writer and drama critic at Vanity Fair.
Harold Ross’s magazine, born in February of 1925, had nearly died the following May, having exhausted nearly all its funds without finding out how to become an insider’s humor magazine for upper-class New Yorkers. His “Prospectus” had promised “a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life jotting down in the small-town newspaper style the comings, goings and doings in the village of New York.” Commenting “on the week’s events in a manner not too serious,” the magazine would seek to be “so entertaining and informative as to be a necessity for the person who knows his way about or wants to.” Its general tenor would be “what is commonly called sophisticated,” but also “one of gaiety, wit and satire,” containing “some josh and some news value….” Foremost, Ross had promised, “It will hate bunk.”
In its early months, the magazine was losing $8,000 a week, and when his partner and financial backer, the bakery heir Raoul Fleischmann, agreed to dip once more into his inheritance, Ross began his quest for the “geniuses” (he called them “Jesuses”) who could save it. In the late spring and early summer of 1925, he hired the first group of saviors, among them Katharine Angell, managing editor Ralph Ingersoll, the cartoonists Peter Arno and Helen Hokinson and Lois Long.
The magazine’s longtime contributor Brendan Gill described Long’s importance to Ross: “Ross was often uncertain of what he wanted the magazine to be—or, rather, he was certain of what he wanted it not to be. This led to many muddles and high hopes dashed, but Ross never doubted that the ideal New Yorker writer, to say nothing of the ideal New Yorker reader, would be someone as like Lois Long as possible.” Raised in Colorado and Utah, a successful editor of Stars and Stripes, and most recently employed by two veterans’ magazines, Ross justifiably thought himself an outsider in New York. But, Gill says, “…in his eyes Miss Long was the embodiment of the glamorous insider. An exceptionally intelligent, good-looking, and high-spirited girl, she had graduated from Vassar in1922 and had plunged at once, joyously, into a New York that seemed always at play—a city of speakeasies, night clubs, tea dances, football weekends, and steamers sailing at midnight.”
During the summer of 1925 and before formally leaving Vanity Fair, Long, writing as “Lipstick,” took over a column on New York City nightlife called “When Nights are Bold,” started several weeks earlier by Charles Baskerville, known to New Yorker readers as “Top Hat.” The blasé, relatively mild tone and content of Long’s first column, in the issue for July 18th, generally echoed “Top Hat’s” style. The next week’s final paragraph, however, took an oblique swing at Prohibition, and by Halloween, the picturesque illustrations to Baskerville’s column were replaced by a black on white art deco drawing showing a caped, cloche-hatted woman and her top-hatted escort slouching toward a black doorway, his flashlight beam revealing the words “Night Club.” Long’s first paragraph airily complained of the raids on speakeasies by Manhattan District Attorney Emory R. Buckner:
Really and truly, Mr. Buckner is not one bit funny any more, and he is far from considerate. It is hard enough trying to keep in touch with those static restaurants that often stay in place for a year, but the idea of constantly learning the new names, new passwords, and new locations that will inevitably follow this new padlocking outburst of his, is a little too much. But the most annoying part of this whole rigmarole is what seems to me, on the surface of things, to be the utter stupidity of the places that have been caught a second time. If patrons have never heard of flasks and private stock, it is too bad about them.
Very few really smart people that I know are willing to drink anything that is handed to them anyhow, and the hocus-pocus of identification fails to flatter them any more. If the restaurant needs the revenue, it can raise the couvert charge, because there are plenty of people who will pay it…. By Thanksgiving, the Del Fey Club, the Piping Rock Restaurant (honest tears here) and the Lido-Venice, as they now stand, will undoubtedly be closed. Some are already looking for new restaurant sites. And all I have to say is that it is their own fault for being what I consider thoroughly dumb.
She closed the column with “telegrams” from exemplary colleges in answer to the query: “Is the Charleston being done at college dances?”
Night letter from Cambridge—(collect)
KICKED OUT OF RESPECTABLE BOSTON DANCE ON EAR FOR ATTEMPTING VIOLENT CHARLESTON ON PERSON OF DEBUTANTE STOP VERY CONSERVATIVE VERSION WITH VERY LITTLE LEG SWINGING AND MUCH SMOOTHNESS IN ORDER.
Telegram from New Haven—(paid, and how!)
CHARLESTON HAS ALREADY VANISHED FROM NEW HAVEN INTO THE OBSCURE LAND OF THE DEMODE PARENTHESIS ACCENT ON EACH E CLOSE PARENTHESIS STOP SUGGEST YOU COMMUNICATE WITH CAP AND GOWN CLUB COMMA PRINCETON.
Telegram from Princeton—(charged to the Princetonian)
CHARLESTON THE LAST THING TO ENTER ANYON0ES MIND STOP RUMORS TO THE CONTRARY WE STUDY HERE STOP AGAIN.
Telegram from the Connecticut aggies:
NEVER BEEN NEAR THE TOWN
The nightlife column’s title changed to “Tables for Two” with the issue for September 12, 1925, the start, as Judith Yaross Lee notes in her meticulous study, DefiningNew Yorker Humor, “of a fall circulation and promotion campaign that would determine the magazine’s fate.”
With Long’s help, Ross’s magazine was developing its unique voice, and another piece, published in November, helped it acquire its audience. “Why We Go to Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains” was written by a Catholic multi-millionaire’s daughter, 22-year-old Ellin Mackay, who was shortly to be banished from her home and threatened with disinheritance for marrying the songwriter Irving Berlin. In her essay, Mackay—who published several novels and whose marriage lasted until Berlin’s death in 1989—explained with precision the preferences of her generation for cabarets and speakeasies:
At last, tired of fruitless struggles to remember half familiar faces, tired of vainly try to avoid unwelcome dances, tired of crowds, we go to a cabaret. We go to cabarets because of the very fastidiousness that Our Elders find so admirable a quality. We have privacy in a cabaret….What does it matter if an unsavory Irish politician is carrying on a dull and noisy flirtation with the little blonde at the table behind us? We don’t have to listen; we are with people whose conversation we find amusing. What does it matter if the flapper and her fattish boy friend are wriggling beside us as we dance? We like our partner and the flapper likes hers, and we don’t bother each other.
Mackay’s piece was featured on the front pages of the New York papers, and The New Yorker, according to an analysis in TIME several years later, “suddenly found that it had succeeded in storming the penthouses of High Society. Its success opened the eyes of Editor Ross to the importance of the Manhattan socialite, to the fact that Broadway gossip sounds dull on Park Avenue.”
Long gave her own account of her nights on the town in an interview in 1955 with Harrison Kinney, the author of the rich biography, James Thurber: His Life and Times:
Everybody belonged to a club in those days, and we were loaded down with the cards you were supposed to have, although the doorkeepers quickly come to know you. Tony Soma loved celebrities, and his back room and the kitchen used to be crowded with theater people. It was where Thurber got to know Humphrey Bogart, who was still getting those ‘Tennis, anyone?’ roles on Broadway, before he became famous. The nightclub banquettes were excellent substitutes for the psychiatrist’s couch less expensive and certainly more fun…We talked out our troubles. There wasn’t much chance to sulk. There was a reckless atmosphere we responded to. We women had been emancipated and we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do with all the freedom and equal rights, so we were going to hell laughing and singing….
We’d start at ‘21’ and go on to Tony’s after ‘21’ closed. Drinks were a dollar twenty-five. We thought brandy was the only safe thing to drink, because, we were told, a bootlegger couldn’t fake the smell and taste of cognac. Usually we wound up in Harlem….
You were thought to be good at holding your liquor in those days if you could make it to the ladies’ room before throwing up. It was customary to give two dollars to the cabdriver if you threw up in his cab…. [Margaret Case Harriman] was one of our regulars until World War II, when she became convinced that all the waiters at Longchamps were Nazis and stopped being much fun.
Although, as “L.L.”, she had been writing the fashion column, “On and Off the Avenue” since the middle of November, 1925, Long became the magazine’s fashion editor in 1927. Her first column as editor, in the issue for January 1, 1927, is concise, assured in voice and rich in content—characteristics that she would maintain and elaborate in years to come.
Informed advice about the theme of the upcoming Beaux Arts Ball ( “New Orleans of the period of 1810 or thereabouts”) concludes with the speculation that the period diversions— “Drop the Handkerchief and Blind Man’s Bluff”—that inspired the poses of the manikins in period ball costumes in the windows of Lord & Taylor are “I have no doubt, early American Post Office.” The column moves on to the varieties of clothing and accessories around town intended for those thinking of “a certain Palm Beach, Paradise for the society reporter, the fashion observer, and Florenz Ziegfeld.” A third item announces that Katharine Kaelred—who had for years visited Paris quarterly with “perfectly fitted linings” and returned with the latest Paris fashions made to order for her clients—had opened a shop at 30 West Fifty-first Street, staffed with “rafts of French models” and “a corps of French dressmakers and copyists to serve her public.” Long concludes the column with an admonition:
This has nothing to do with the paragraph preceding: it is just the airing of an opinion. It is true that nobody can design clothes better than the French. But the big and popular couturiers are decidedly giving the lie to the tradition of exquisite French workmanship. Go ahead and buy an original little Chanel around here if you want to. And watch it drop to pieces on your back the second wearing. The franc is going up, French prices are going up, the duty is as heavy as ever, and the clothes are slung together. Copies, either here or in Paris, and reproductions may not give you the same feeling as a celebrated label, but they do stay together longer. And it is just about time that American women acquired some sense on the subject.
Some “josh,” plenty of “news value,” and “no bunk”; Ross must have loved it.
In his autobiography, Point of Departure, Ralph Ingersoll described, in 1965, the contrasting talents that combined to make Long an instant success:
The departments that made her famous, and did a wheel-horse job of pulling The New Yorker through its first years, were “Tables for Two” and “On and Off the Avenue”…. For Lois Long was almost unbelievably right from the first line she ever wrote; and thirty years later she is still unduplicatable…. She had an almost infinite capacity for being childishly delighted with pretty things in stores, and with gay surroundings; her bubbly and insatiable appreciation never seemed to wear off. But alongside this infectious quality of enthusiasm, at once underlying and flavoring it, Lois had a kind of native shrewdness, an ability to keep her head. She never quite lost touch with the reality that her world of glamour was for sale. Thus in Lois were combined two rare ingredients: an ability to be perpetually stimulated, blended with an ability to be perpetually critical. It took just such a person to make Ross’s rather stern and puritanical concept of journalistic honesty into weekly columns of words so readable and entertaining that they gave The New Yorker its first continuity of reader interest….
The critical content of Lois’s columns was also set against the times, a daring journalistic innovation…. Few advertisers (or readers) at first believed it was on the up-and-up, and as Lois went right on speaking her mind hardly a week went by without the cancellation of some advertising as a result. Fleischmann and his advertising people were frantic, but Ross stuck by his guns. He said they would come back, and they did. They had to, for Lois’s audience was to become so loyal that a line in her column could sell out a counter in a big department store, or make or break a new night club.
Also in 1927, Lois Long was married. In his memoir, Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill observed that “[Peter] Arno aside, surely the most dashing figure on The New Yorker in the early days was Lois Long…. Despite Ross’s repeated, gloomy expostulations on the subject of office romances, it was perhaps inevitable that Arno and Miss Long should have fallen in love.” Long and Arno were married by her father at her parents’ home in Stamford on August 13, 1927, and a boisterous, tempestuous and brief marriage began. One incident suggests its temperament. Hoping to keep his hard-partying writers closer to the workplace, Ross opened a staff speakeasy in the basement of a near-by property owned by Fleischman. “He thought,” Long told Kinney, “if the magazine had its own speakeasy it would be safer for us and that the same general decorum could be kept that Mrs. [Katharine Angell] White inspired at the office. Then Ingersoll came in one morning and found Arno and me stretched out on the sofa nude and Ross closed the place down…. Arno and I may have been married to one another then; I can’t remember. Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to.” A daughter, Patricia, was born in 1929, and the couple divorced in Reno on June 30, 1931.
As the magazine solidified its format and content, Lois Long’s roles clarified and multiplied. From the later 1920s well into the 1950’s she contributed many unsigned items to the “Comments” and “Talk of the Town” sections. “Tables for Two” expired with the issue for June 7, 1930 (although the title and theme were revived 70 years later), but “Lipstick” appeared from time to time as a “correspondent,” from Washington, DC, Paris, and Hollywood. In a six-part series in 1931, under the general title “Doldrums,” Long, approaching thirty, skeptically assessed the “modern” decade ahead.
In the first article, “Bed of Neuroses,” the former “playgirl” saw the modern party scene as merely a setting for people to exhibit and discuss their newly discovered psychological problems:
It is all so discouraging; so very, very, sad. Six million people in New York, and apparently no one in the white-collar class who can lose himself for a moment in the ecstasy of a roller-coaster. Six million people in New York, and every one of them a curious little study in maladjustment. Thousands of young men who own dinner jackets, and I am always drawing someone who makes scenes in public because he once had a little cat that died and he has never got over it.
The next three articles—”It’s Fun to Work,” “The Swing of the Pendulum,” and “The Hunted”—showed how “Lois cares less and less” for, respectively: debutantes longing to join the New York work force; the pallid contemporary worries about the younger generation ( “At the present time, there isn’t a thing to View with Alarm that has the slightest fillip of sex to make it vital”); and the times’ inability to field marriageable men ( “Between twenty-five and forty, men may be plenty of fun to jazz around with, but they are no career”). In the fifth episode, “Can’t We Be Friends?”, “Lois” frets that the widely proclaimed hard-working, open-minded, attractive, ominicompetent Modern Women” seem not to find any similarly enabled “Modern Men,” and in the last article, “Addison Sims Trouble,” she celebrates her inability to join in the social game—abetted by modern “memory schools”—of instantly recognizing and naming anyone she’s ever met:
The thing that I can’t understand is why everybody minds so. It isn’t as if I were their mother or Mahatma Gandhi, or anything important like that. Their lives could go on peaceably enough if I never entered another room with them as long as they lived.
During her long career, Lois Long’s work appeared in many places and in several formats. Early on, in 1928, she had been recruited by the editor and screen-writer, Gene Fowler, to contribute, along with Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner, Westbrook Pegler, and Walter Winchell, to The New York Telegraph, during his brief editorship, and in 1936 Long was herself briefly under contract to Paramount Pictures. Her growing influence in the world of fashion also led to frequent appearances on the radio, starting in March, 1931 and continuing into the late 1940s.
On July 31, 1938, Lois Long married Donaldson Thorburn, a newspaper and advertising man, who later served in the WWII. They collaborated on a book, No Tumult, No Shouting (1945), about his wartime experience defending the Aleutian Islands in PBY Catalina “flying boat” aircraft. She contributed two long essays, “The Bonnet; or, Man’s Fall” (1952) and “The Shaggy Hair Story” (1954) to The New York Times Magazine, and in 1956, four years after his death, she edited and published her father’s last work as a naturalist, The Spirit of the Wild, having found the manuscript in his safe in Stamford. The book’s publication prompted an essay in the Times by J. Donald Adams, who reviewed Dr. Long’s long-ago tussle with Theodore Roosevelt and who declared that “to any fair-minded reader” Long’s “interest in wild life was fully as intense as Roosevelt’s and…his opportunities for observation had, if anything, been greater than those of his famous opponent.”
On November 26, 1953, Lois Long married Harold Fox, the manager of the Easton, Pennsylvania, branch of the Warren York & Company investment brokerage firm, whom Gill described, in The New Yorker’s memorial note for Long, as “a proper Pennsylvanian named Harold A. Fox.” Writing to the Vassar Alumnae Association in 1960 (and admitting that she’d “been such a stinker about my Alma Mater that I’m almost ashamed”), Long wondered whether “it is dogged loyalty or just plain lacking a sense of adventure, but I’m still on The New Yorker, as I have been for most of my life….” She described briefly, with satisfaction, her “1807 Pennsylvania-Dutch farmhouse surrounded by woods and other people’s farm land, with skunks and oppossums and deer and all manner of wild life, including our guests” and her delight in her “two girl grandchildren—Andrea Long Bush (four) named after a 25,000 ton ship and me, and Katharine Kittredge Bush, who arrived on Mother’s Day almost two years ago…. [T]he hectic fifteen years or so after graduation, when I thought I had New York City by the tail and was swinging it around my head, seem very far away. Thank God. I like things this way.”
Lois Long retired from The New Yorker in 1970, and she died in Saratoga, New York, near her daughter’s home, on July 29, 1974. In his memorial note, in the issue of the magazine for August 12, Brendan Gill described her accomplishment in “what must total several million words of acute and candid fashion criticism”:
Her attitude was a novelty…. L.L. cared not a straw for anyone but her readers. Her intention was to instruct and entertain them by the extraordinary device of taking clothes seriously and writing about them honestly. The device succeeded, and she soon acquired an immense following. All her life, she went on telling the truth, with a wit and lack of rancor that made her career an enviable one.
Reprinting this note in At the New Yorker, Gill added that since Lois Long had not wanted a funeral her daughter had given a small party for her New Yorker colleagues at the Algonquin, a few days after her death.
Plenty of drinks were served and anecdotes about Lois were on everyone’s lips. People spoke with delight of the latest, and possibly the last, outrageous anecdote of which she was the leading figure. In its long and admiring obituary of her, the Times printed a photograph not of the Lois Long with whom the obituary was concerned but of another Lois Long—a dress designer whom L. L., as it happened, had always cordially disliked. What a noisy, comic scene she would have liked to make at the Times, denouncing such a gaffe!
If Lois Long’s 1955 interview with Harrison Kinney remains her most colorful and candid reflection on her early days, and “Lois’s” early retrospective on the 1920’s in “Doldrums” is the most complex, the most sustained and satisfying is doubtless “Lipstick’s” essay “That Was New York—And Those Were the Tables for Two,” which ran in The New Yorker for February 17, 1940. “We smiled when we were dancing,” it begins, “back in 1925, even though there wasn’t a candid camera in sight.” The anecdotes, incidents, and reflections flow into each other, as she invokes her whole crowd:
Always we kept our little minds alert by the exercise of remembering new names and locations, new passwords, because a man named Buckner was terribly busy padlocking everything….
Regularly the exasperated Mr. Buckner raided Miss [Texas] Guinan’s howling glamour den and carted Miss Guinan and her employees off in patrol wagons. Regularly, Miss Guinan…emerged to start a new club somewhere else, and opening night there she’d be, with a necklace of padlocks festooned about her neck, saying that at last she was in her permanent home. Just signed a nineteen-year lease.
Raids were funny sometimes. We didn’t have enough sense to scare. There were a few like a movie; cops broke the doors down, women fainted, and waiters screamed as they threw bottled evidence out the window….
Heavens, how young everybody was! There was Harlem. Harlem was a thrill. We went there regularly well after midnight, to smoky lairs called the Drool Inn, the Clam House, and the Hot Feet. Dozens of tiny places….
In retrospect, Long admits that many of “the calamities that were predicted for us from home and from pulpit came, all right. There aren’t enough gall bladders among the survivors to go around.” But, she concludes, “There was never any of this nonsense about nervous breakdowns from boredom. We smiled as we danced.”
Brendan Gill, Here at the New Yorker, New York, 1975.
Ralph McAllister Ingersoll, Point of Departure: An Adventure in Autobiography, New York, 1965.
Harrison Kinney, James Thurber: His Life and Times, New York, 1995.
Judith Yaross Lee, Defining New Yorker Humor, Jackson, MS, 2000.
Michael Lerner, Dry Manhattan, Cambridge, MA, 2007.
Lois Long, “Vassar Dramatics,” The Poughkeepsie Courier, June 11, 1922.
“When Nights Were Bold,” The New Yorker, July 18, 1925.
“Tables for Two,” The New Yorker, October 31, 1925.
“Tables for Two,” The New Yorker, October 31, 1926.
“On and Off the Avenue,” The New Yorker, January 1, 1927.
“Doldrums,” The New Yorker, January 10, 17, 31, March 14, April 18, September 5, 1931.
“That Was New York—And Those Were Tables for Two,” The New Yorker, February 17, 1940.
“The Bonnet; or, Man’s Fall,” The New York Times, April 13, 1952.
“The Shaggy Hair Story,” The New York Times, May 30, 1954.
Ellin Mackay, “Why We Go to Cabarets: A Post-Debutante Explains,” The New Yorker, November 28, 1925.
“Press: The New Yorker,” TIME, August 6, 1934.
Leonard Dubkin, “Nature, as it Was, and as it is,” The New York Times, June 24, 1956.
J. Donald Adams, “Speaking of Books,” July 8, 1956.
The New Yorker Digital Archive.
The New York Times Historical File.