Cathedrals of Broadway [Florine Stettheimer]

Griff Stecyk

Contributor

The Great Depression isn’t so depressing if you happen to be filthy rich, as eccentric socialite Florine Stettheimer shows us in Cathedrals of Broadway.  

This is Broadway, year 1929. The stock market has just crashed, but the excitement of Manhattan is still at a fever pitch.  Silent pictures are going out, the Talkies are taking the world by storm, and broadway musicals are at an all time high in popularity, as people flock to theaters to escape the miseries of Depression-era life.  Ginger Rogers tap-dances across the silver screen with giant coins placed over her private parts singing “We’re in the money!” to audiences that don’t have enough to eat.

Then there are the lucky ones who didn’t lose everything.  Luxuries are dirt cheap in an economy that has no market for them, so the high life just got higher.  Florine Stettheimer is one of these chosen few.  We see her entering the “Cathedral” on the left with her sister Stella and her cousin Walter Wagner.  Get a load of that pink coat!  For them “The Crash” is what you do after a night of partying, and “The Depression” is the feeling you get when you run out of gin.  They are a marked contrast to the plainly dressed common folk lining up at the box office, or the service workers in their dapper uniforms.  

A Ziegfeld-esque stage extravaganza appears in the back, under a giant newsreel of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker throwing the first pitch of the baseball season.  The signs and facades of famous Broadway theaters blaze in the background.  Stettheimer also makes an “in” reference, with a painting of a bull by fellow artist Rosa Bonheur above the gold-clad usher’s cap.

Stettheimer captures all the tacky glamour and idiosyncrasy of this Baz Luhrmann world, in which the starving masses scrape together a few cents to watch movie stars change costumes every five minutes and sing songs about the good life; a fitting swan song for the roaring ‘20s.