The man in the top hat and 1920s “ballyhoo”

Today’s a big day in Lindbergh History: Eighty-five years ago, the “conqueror of the Atlantic” was welcomed back to New York by something like a million people lining the streets, amidst showers of confetti and ticker-tape.  In terms of the number of spectators and in volume of paper released onto the parade route, the Lindbergh extravaganza remained unsurpassed in New York history until 1945, and the VJ Day parade marking the end of World War II.

The orchestrator of this pinnacle moment of Lindbergh “ballyhoo” (a great 1920s word) was Grover Whalen, who can be seen sitting in the convertible with Lindbergh in the banner photo on my home page, and in the photo above, although in this one he’s sitting in front of Lindbergh, yielding his waving duties to another top-hatted dignitary, flamboyant New York mayor Jimmy Walker.

Grover Whalen, the glad-handed “official greeter” of the city, seemed instinctively to know when to smile for any camera.  Whalen (who would go on to greater fame as  commissioner and promoter of the New York World’s Fair in 1939-40) held his only-in-New York post from 1919 to 1953, during which time he was said to have engineered no fewer than 86 ticker-tape parades.  Albert Einstein was feted with one in 1921—the only scientist so honored–and the U.S. Olympic Games team rode in one in 1924.  In just one summer–1926–New Yorkers showered the following with tons of tickertape:  a group of Roman Catholic cardinals from the Vatican; Commander Richard E. Byrd, following his North Pole flight; Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth after their own polar exploits; Mrs. Clemington Corson, a Channel swimmer; Miss Gertrude Ederle, the record-breaking Channel swimmer; golfer Bobby Jones on his return from England; boxing champ Gene Tunney on his arrival from Philadelphia; and finally, the “supreme moment,” the arrival of the much heralded Queen Marie of Rumania.  (Laurence Greene, The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, 1939)

Laurence Greene interpreted the “ballyhoo” of the 1920s as a natural journalistic reaction to the end of World War I as a “best-selling story.”  The American press was required to find a story to fill the gap, and so inflated beyond all reason a great many trivial happenings, endowing with “momentary greatness any number of shabby and unimportant persons.”

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