★ America in 1932 ★
By autumn 1932, the United States was entering the fourth year of the “Great Depression,” and the nation was slipping further into a sense of lost hope. When the stock market crashed in October, 1929, the so-called Roaring Twenties, with all its optimism and excess, came to a jolting halt.
Now, three years later, Americans were becoming increasingly impatient as they watched their quality of life sink lower and lower. When the Republican Party re-nominated Herbert Hoover for another term as president in June, they, essentially, handed over the White House to the Democrats. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the then-governor of New York, was nominated in Chicago on July 1 by the Dems to oppose Hoover, and FDR’s fresh spirit of confidence was irresistible to most Americans.
On November 8, 1932, Roosevelt was convincingly elected as the 32nd President of the United States. The average American didn’t even realize that FDR had been crippled years before by a form of polio. They simply wanted new leadership, and that’s how they voted. Of course, no one had any way of knowing that Roosevelt would be elected three more times (1936, 1940 & 1944), thereby becoming one of America’s greatest political icons.
Yet, it wasn’t just the United States that was in turmoil. In 1932, much of the world was turning upside down. It was that kind of year. It is generally known that Adolph Hitler was coming to power in poverty-stricken Germany, but few remember that much of Europe was also in transition. France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Belgium, Holland and even Switzerland were all experiencing different levels of upheaval. In Russia, Josef Stalin was brutally wielding his new-found power by “purging” anyone who disagreed with him. It is now believed that millions of Russian serfs and/or dissidents were executed during the 1930s.
And that is not all. The Empire of Japan invaded China, and then experienced its own internal unrest. Elsewhere in Asia, Thailand was the scene of a coup, Gandhi was stirring things up in India (in his case, much to the greater good), and Iraq gained its independence from England. Most of Central and South America were either in revolt or contemplating some form of socio-political change. Indeed, the world in 1932 was dramatically unpredictable.
Most historians now agree that The Great War of 1914-1918 (aka World War One) never really ended. The heralded armistice of November 11, 1918 was, essentially, nothing more than a twenty-one year truce between the warring powers. Neither the Versailles Treaty nor the League of Nations, regardless of their noble intentions, functioned as intended. The time between World War One and World War Two was merely an interlude of unresolved conflict.
On the positive side, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia (aka Abyssinia) announced that he would free the 2,000,000 slaves still in bondage in his east African nation as soon as practicable. The United States, with its considerable influence in Liberia on the opposite side of the African continent, vowed to do all in its power to similarly end this longstanding scourge. By the end of the 1930s, much progress had been achieved.
Back in the U.S.A., life still went forward with its usual mixture of the positive and the negative. In February, gangster Al Capone was sentenced to Federal Prison for tax evasion, Then, On March 1 in Hopewell, New Jersey, the young son of renowned aviator, Charles Lindbergh, was reported kidnapped, and the nation became transfixed with the dramatic tragedy. Looking backward from the 21st Century, it is impossible to understand the overpowering popularity of Lindbergh. But, in 1927, when “Lucky Lindy” flew the first solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, the whole concept of manned-flight was still in its relative infancy.
Mankind had dreamed of flying for thousands of years, and, when that became possible, every step forward was anticipated with almost fanatic passion. America was not alone in this mindset. When Lindbergh successfully landed in Paris, he was met by thousands of wildly enthusiastic (nearly hysterical) Frenchmen. As a result, Charles Lindbergh became a beloved symbol of American culture. So, when his son was reported as kidnapped, the American public followed each development with obsessive interest. Two months later, the boy was found dead in a nearby woods, but the saga was far from finished. Eventually, a German immigrant, named Bruno Hauptmann, was tried for the crime, and ultimately executed. The entire legal process was reported in minute detail, and was labeled as the “Trial of the Century.” Even today, the case still generates interest for those who feel that Hauptman was unjustly convicted and punished.
By a rather odd historical coincidence, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in 1932, the same year as the Lindbergh tragedy. Although not quite as celebrated as her male predecessor, Earhart was still wildly popular. Apparently, Americans needed heroes, and were anxious to express themselves with positive energy.
In fact, despite the harsh economic realities of the time, “American Exceptionalism” was still in full flower. While millions of her citizens struggled just to feed themselves, America of 1932 was a vibrant force in mankind’s irresistible advancement in all aspects of human life.
On January 1, the Post Office announced the release of a series of stamps to honor the 200th Birthday of George Washington, the “Father of the United States.” On the scientific front, within months, Henry Ford introduced the V-8 engine, and the first vaccine to combat yellow fever was discovered. By year’s end, physicist Carl David Anderson had identified the positron for the first time. And Walter Bradford Cannon published The Wisdom of the Body in which he advanced the theory of homeostasis.
In New York City, the Empire State Building celebrated its first anniversary, and Radio City Music Hall opened its doors for the first time. The initial attraction featured Ray Bolger and Martha Graham leading a lavish, live stage performance. All over the country, the arts flourished. It is likely that America’s list of playwrights superseded that of any other time in the early 1930s. The rolls included: Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart, George S. Kaufman, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, and George Bernard Shaw. On stage, their brilliant creativity was brought to life by such accomplished performers as: the Barrymores (Ethel, John and Lionel), Lili Damita, Fred Astaire, Claire Luce, Bert Lahr, George Murphy, and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
On the “Silver Screen,” folks still found ways to patronize the movie theatres around the country, and were particularly fond of such productions as: Grand Hotel, Trouble in Paradise, Scarface, The Champ, City Lights, The Mummy, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, and Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde. The favorite screen actors of the day were: James Cagney, Clark Gable, Wallace Beery, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, Greta Garbow, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler, and Norma Shearer. In that same memorable year, many screen legends made their debuts, including Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, David Niven, Mae West, Dick Powell, and Shirley Temple.
Pop-culture also featured columnists and commentators such as: Will Rogers, Walter Winchell, Damon Runyon, Drew Pearson, Hedda Hopper, and Louella Parsons. On the comic pages, Superman debuted in 1932 as had Dick Tracey the preceding year. Other popular entries of the time were: Betty Boop, Buck Rogers, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Barney Google, Mickey Mouse, Krazy Kat, and Tarzan of the Apes. On the radio, listeners were mostly tuning into Amos ‘n’ Andy, Charlie Chan, Texaco Fire Chief, Jack Benny and Eddie Cantor.
In the literary world, Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth, her classic historical novel about family life in rural China. Readers were also blessed by the vast talents of writers Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hamett, Aldous Huxley, journalist Walter Lippmann, and poets: Langston Hughes and Robert Frost.
The field of the performing arts was similarly gifted with many vastly talented individuals. Dancers George Balanchine, James Barton, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were thrilling audiences with their mesmerizing choreographies. Classical vocalists Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson were in vogue as were many of America’s most renowned popular singers. That group included Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee and the Mills Brothers.
And, of course, 1932 was a high point in the “Big Band Era” in the United States. The names of the top band leaders are known even now to most Americans. They were Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo, and Paul Whiteman. Jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Thomas “Fats” Waller were also an integral part of the musical renaissance of the 1930s. Song writers George and Ira Gershwin along with Cole Porter contributed mightily to America’s rich musical history. The top songs of 1932 were: Brother Can You Spare a Dime, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Happy Days Are Here Again (FDR’s campaign song), All of Me, and Night and Day.
Overall, American artistry was thriving. Photographer/naturalist Ansel Adams was making his reputation by way of his breathtaking images of the American West. Norman Rockwell was painting covers for The Saturday Evening Post magazine, a collaboration that lasted for forty-seven years. Rockwell’s colorful representations of everyday life in America became a beloved symbol of the nation’s heart and soul. Other popular magazines (which were in their heyday) were: Life, McCall’s, Scribner’s, Harper’s Weekly, Vogue, The New Yorker, and Time.
In rural South Dakota at Mount Rushmore, sculptor Gutzon Borglum (the son of Danish immigrants) was well into his epic task of carving the gigantic stone heads of four U.S. presidents into the mountain. It could be said that Borglum, who exhibited a fierce pride in anything uniquely American, was a product of those times. Although stubborn, vein and autocratic, he was the right man for the job. The Mount Rushmore project was perpetually under-funded, but Borglum refused to accept defeat. By virtue of his talent, grit and tenacity, Mount Rushmore stands today as a monument of American majesty.
In sports, the United States of America was solidifying its role as the preeminent athletic power on the planet. Both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games were celebrated on U.S. soil in 1932. First, the Winter Games were hosted by the town of Lake Placid in upstate New York in February. That is where Norwegian figure skater, Sonja Henie, dazzled the world with her athletic grace and smiling countenance. After winning Gold Medals in 1928, 1932 and 1936, Henie parlayed her Olympic fame into a successful movie career.
Then, in July 1932, the Summer Olympic Games came to the newly constructed Los Angeles Coliseum (aka Olympic Stadium). Due to the worldwide financial depression, no other city even put in a bid to host the tenth modern Olympiad. In fact, because of the travel costs, only about half as many international athletes competed in Los Angeles as had in Amsterdam in 1928. Nonetheless, thirty-seven nations participated in the ’32 Games with the U.S.A. dominating throughout.
On the female side, Texan Mildred “Babe” Didrikson won three medals on her way to becoming the greatest woman athlete in U.S. (and, arguably, the world) history. At L.A., she won gold in the javelin and hurdles along with silver in the high jump. Among the men, Thomas “Eddie” Tolan of Michigan would be hailed as “The World’s Fastest Human” due to his Olympic record performances in both the 100 and 200 meter sprints. At the end of the competition, the powerful United States delegation had won a total of 103 medals to thirty-six for runner-up Italy.
Sadly for many Americans, most of the premier athletes of the 1920s had left the scene by 1932. In boxing, Jack Demsey had retired, and Joe Louis was not yet entrenched as the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Golfing legend, Bobby Jones had stepped away from formal competition, although Gene Sarazen (among others) would shine in Jones’ absence. Big Bill Tilden was still playing tennis, but not with the same supremacy as back in the Twenties. Basketball and ice hockey had their followings, but their respective popularities were insignificant as compared to today. College football was firmly entrenched and well-attended, but professional football was struggling.
Essentially, baseball (with college football and boxing vying for a distant second place) ruled the American sports scene. American League legends Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Tris Speaker had retired, but they had been replaced by such young stalwarts as Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons. In the National League, Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander were long gone, and Rogers Hornsby was just hanging on. But, Mel Ott, Bill Terry and Dizzy Dean had filled the breach, thereby perpetuating the National Pastime. Then, there was Babe Ruth.
Almost every American was familiar with the story of George Herman Ruth. He had been born on February 6, 1895 in Baltimore, Maryland to German/American parents. His father became a saloon keeper in a tough waterfront section of the city, and his mother, worn down by constant childbirth, became sickly. As a result, young George had little supervision, and grew into a troublesome lad, often at odds with himself and local authorities.
At age seven in 1902, Ruth was sent to St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys, which was operated by a Roman Catholic (the family religion) order of clerics known as the Xaverian Brothers. Basically, St. Mary’s was a reform school, and young George stayed there, off and on, until just after his nineteenth birthday in 1914. That was when his vast athletic skills prompted his signing by the Baltimore Orioles of the International League. Quickly garnering the nickname “Babe,” Ruth was an immediate sensation as a left-handed pitcher.
Before the 1914 season ended, Babe Ruth was sold to the Boston Red Sox where he became an instant success at the Major League level. He was so astoundingly gifted that nothing could hold him back. Babe was on his way to a Hall of Fame pitching career, when, in 1918, he began playing part time in the field to better use his extraordinary batting power. That was it. He set the all-time season home run record in 1919 by blasting twenty-nine round-trippers, whereupon he was sold again…this time to the New York Yankees. It was the perfect place for him.
As Babe Ruth demolished both performance and attendance records wherever he went throughout the 1920s, observers and pundits agreed that he was in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. Babe became the trademark of the Roaring Twenties with his flamboyance and penchant for living life in the moment. So, when the bubble burst in October 1929 with the infamous “Stock Market Crash,” it may have been reasonably assumed that Babe’s popularity would wane. Yet, that didn’t happen.
When the nation sank further into poverty and despair, the Babe grew in stature. By 1932, although his physical skills were beginning to abate, he was more beloved than ever. Why was that? Why did Ruth outshine every other athlete of his or any other generation? Actually, the explanation is simple. Not only was Babe Ruth the greatest baseball player in the history of the game, he was also the one man with whom everybody identified. Rich or poor, it didn’t matter. Everyone looked at the Babe, with all his faults and foibles, and recognized his ability to overcome hardship. He gave hope to his fellow Americans when they needed it most, and, in return, they gave him their loyalty and their love.
So, as Babe Ruth entered the 1932 season shortly after his thirty-seventh birthday, most Americans still expected him to do great things. It didn’t matter that he was past his physical prime. Babe had been doing the seemingly impossible for so long that nothing appeared to be beyond his capabilities. And somehow, he found a way to live up to those unrealistic expectations. Despite an inevitable decline in his season’s overall production, Babe Ruth culminated the 1932 baseball year with a performance that still resonates with fictional characteristics.