Lois Long chronicled the escapades of a flapper let loose in New York’s speakeasies and clubs during the infancy of the New Yorker. Unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, another writer who documented the Roaring 20s, she lived to old age in rural contentment.
But she put the stamp of an urban sophisticate on the magazine at a time when it struggled to find an identity.
New Yorker writer Brendan Gill remembers her as ‘the most dashing figure on The New Yorker in the early days.’ Harold Ross, wrote Gill, never doubted that the ideal New Yorker writer ‘would be someone as like Lois Long as possible.’
She admitted, though, that she and her generation suffered the problems that resulted from youthful fast living.
Early Life of Lois Long
She was born in Stamford, Conn., on Dec. 15, 1901, to William Long, a Congregationalist minister who wrote books on wildlife and English literature, and Frances Bancroft.
Her biographer, Joshua Zeitz, wrote,
Long spent her childhood in a quiet neighborhood where fathers caught the seven o’clock train into the city and the six thirty-five back each night and mothers clipped articles from Good Housekeeping.
Her family, however, shunned convention in at least one way: Her father took his children – Lois, Brian and Cesca – to Maine in March for long sojourns in the wilderness. There he observed the behavior of wild animals and wrote about their ability to learn from each other. That provoked Teddy Roosevelt, but that’s another story.
Lois grew into a beautiful young woman, tall, with dark hair and violet gray eyes. After graduating from Vassar, she fled as far from the Maine wilderness as she could possibly go.
New York, New York
She got jobs working for Vanity Fair and Vogue and took a tiny New York apartment with actress Kay Francis. She smoked, she drank and, according to writer Brendan Gill, she
‘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.’
Zeitz described her escapades:
She often went to Harlem after 3 a.m. and arrive home after the stock exchange bell sounded. “Incredibly, she stuck to this routine almost every night. And she [like Kay] developed a titanium tolerance for liquor. “If you could make it to the ladies’ room before throwing up,” she chortled, you were “thought to be good at holding your liquor…It was customary to give two dollars to the cab driver if you threw up in his cab. Which happened from time to time.”
New Yorker editor Harold Ross decided she was exactly what his struggling magazine needed, and in 1925 she went to work for him at $50 a week. She signed her columns, “Lipstick.”
As Lipstick, she sometimes staggered into work at 4 a.m., dressed to the nines and drunk, and write her column. She wanted it to be fresh.
In hot weather she wrote in a slip. When the magazine moved to a new office, her desk stood so far from her assistant they brought roller skates and skated back and forth. Management finally caved and moved them closer.
Tables for Two
Her Tables for Two column ran from Sept. 12, 1925 until June 7, 1930. Long’s insouciant comments about the social whirl won her a loyal following.
In the April 17, 1926 edition of the New Yorker, Long wrote, “At the outset of my night club career my escort’s indignant query, “Who killed that squirrel?” cured me of night club chow mein for all time.”
She complained once that nothing ever happened to her. Her escorts were only ‘reasonably adept at the art of bar-room fighting.’
“I was at The Owl on Saturday and on Tuesday, and what did the nasty gunmen do but hold the place up on Monday night.”
She poked fun at New York’s crusading district attorney, Emory 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.
She also wrote about fashion, but she refused to suck up to the industry. Her first fashion column, On and Off the Avenue, appeared on Jan. 1, 1927.
“Go ahead and buy an original little Chanel around here if you want to,” she wrote. “And watch it drop to pieces on your back the second wearing.”
Marriage, For a While
On Aug. 13, 1927, the Rev. William Long married his daughter and cartoonist Peter Arno, her fellow hell-raiser at the New Yorker.
Arno shared his wife’s taste for wild nights in Harlem nightclubs, jazz clubs, after parties and speakeasies. Ross decided to open a little staff drinking club.
“He thought 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 [Ralph] 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.”
They had a daughter, Patricia, in 1929. She told Vanity Fair writer Ben Schwartz about her parents’ short marriage:
“There were lots of calls to (gossip columnist Walter) Winchell or some other columnist about nightclub fights…with my mother calling and saying, ‘Oh, please don’t print that about us,’ trying to keep their names out of the papers.”
Arno had sold three books of his cartoons and the couple could afford to live in an East Side penthouse. They hung out with New Yorker writers, theater people and the wealthy.
“Once my mother was having trouble with her Plymouth,’ said Pat Arno, “and Walter Chrysler took off his evening coat, rolled up his sleeves, and fixed it himself.’”
Divorce, and 30
Lois Long filed for divorce from Peter Arno in 1931. When she turned 30 she quit writing her Tables for Two column. They’d begun to show her weariness of the partying life.
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.
She continued to contribute fashion columns to the New Yorker, worked for the New York Evening Telegraph and, for a time, had a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Lois Long married Donaldson Thorburn, who worked in newspaper advertising, During World War II he served in the Aleutian Islands flying a PBY Catalina amphibious airplane. Together, they wrote a book about his wartime experience called No Tumult, No Shouting.
Thorburn died in 1952. So did her father.
She found her father’s last manuscript, The Spirit of the Wild, in his safe, and edited and published it four years later.
In 1953, Lois Long married a proper Pennsylvanian, Harold Fox, who managed a local branch of an investment brokerage firm.
She wrote to the Vassar Alumni Association in 1960 about her life, which resembled her childhood in Stamford. She described her two grandchildren and her ‘1807 Pennsylvania-Dutch farmhouse surrounded by woods and other people’s farm land, with skunks and opossums and deer and all manner of wild life, including our guests.’
And then she wrote,
[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.
In hindsight, she wrote, ‘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 observed, at least no one had a nervous breakdown from boredom. “We smiled as we danced.”
She died of lung cancer in Saratoga, at 73 on July 29, 1974.
Image of 21 By David Shankbone – English Wikipedia, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3899196
With thanks to Joshua Zeitz, Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern, Brendan Gill, Here at the New Yorker, Harrison Kinney, James Thurber: His Life and Times and the Vassar Encyclopedia, Lois Long.