• U.S.

The Press: Them Were the Days

3 minute read

Most Americans who remember the Prohibition Era would rather not. But to Norman Hume Anthony, onetime editor of Judge, Life and Ballyhoo, ft is the time when Americans were happiest. His autobiography, just published, How to Grow Old Disgracefully (Duell, Sloan & Pearce; $3) is a flippant, bawdy, superficial account of phenomenal success and complete comedown in the tricky business of trying to make magazine readers laugh. It is also the most unashamed backward look at the National Bender in a long time.

When Buffalo-born Norm Anthony went to New York as a free-lance cartoonist at 21, he loved the place “at first sight; I’ve been faithful to it ever since.” He was somewhat less faithful in other respects (“I’m the poor man’s Tommy Manville”) but even now he salvages some self-respect from the fact that he loved only one woman at a time. For his speakeasy pals he maintains a sturdy, juvenile affection. They were uniformly great tosspots and great guys. How to Grow Old Disgracefully is full of their gags and practical jokes. The common denominator of these friendships may well have been at a level higher than gin, but Anthony provides no clue to it. He says: “People had fun in speakeasies. Today’s nightclubs are morgues.”

Anything for a Laugh. Somehow, between trips to speaks, gag-minded Norman Anthony made humor-magazine history. In 1922 he became editor of Judge. Within a year he lifted its sagging circulation from 30,000 to 100,000 by substituting cartoons for most of its heavy-footed text. The old Life lured him away with the then-unheard-of bait of $35,000 a year and 10% of the profits. Anthony lifted Life’s face. He put its dignified owner, Charles Dana Gibson, back to work at his trade of illustrator, dropped Walter Winchell, took on Odd Mclntyre and jacked circulation from 40,000 to 100,000 within six months. Said conservative Charles Dana Gibson: “Son, you’re here for the rest of your life!” The financial crash a few months later made it a year instead of a lifetime.

Then Anthony made his big killing with a flash success called Ballyhoo (top circ. 2,000,000), which was full of pretty good and not so good humor based on the repetition of the name Zilch. Ballyhoo satire on American advertising made so much money for Editor Anthony during the depression that he had a hard time staying broke. But he did: he blew it on a Broadway revue, on a trip to Europe (which bored him), on openhanded loans, on the horses, on bigger-than-ever drinking bouts.

Anthony, now 56, makes a living writing a mystery thriller every other week for Hearst Sunday supplements, and contributing to newsstand joke magazines. Of his autobiography he says: “I suppose I made an ass of myself. But if you have to be an ass, you might as well be an honest ass.”

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